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Decolonise How? | Hang on, ‘humanitarian’ might not mean what you think it does

Journalists have an ethical obligation to unpack what is meant when employing humanitarian terms.

This is a cartoon showing rubble from the destruction that resulted in the aftermath of the bombing of Gaza. Dark smoke emerges from the rubble. On the top left we see a text that says: "Meanwhile in Gaza". At the bottom left we see a picket sign that reads: Humanitarianism Patrick Gathara/TNH
Israel-Gaza coverage has been laced with the word ‘humanitarian’. And that may lead to moral obfuscation rather than clarity.

In the midst of the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the word “humanitarian” has been popping up with increasing frequency.

There have been calls for opening up “humanitarian corridors” to allow “humanitarian supplies” to enter Gaza and allow civilians to escape. While largely endorsing Israel’s actions as covered by a right to defend itself, the EU has promised to triple “humanitarian aid” to Gaza and to open a “humanitarian air bridge” to bring in supplies through Egypt. US President Joe Biden also vowed to “address dire humanitarian needs” and, during his trip to Israel, offered “$100 million in aid for humanitarian assistance” to Palestinians (shortly before asking Congress for $14 billion for Israel).

Press coverage, too, has been liberal in its use of the term. “This catastrophic situation creates a humanitarian crisis for all residents of the Gaza Strip,” Al Jazeera reported, quoting a statement from unnamed “Gaza authorities”. The same article cites the secretary-general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization as saying “the Gaza Strip is facing a major humanitarian catastrophe”. For its part, the Wall Street Journal in a piece headlined “Fears of Humanitarian Disaster” stressed that “the enclave has been in a long-running humanitarian crisis” since the imposition of a blockade in June 2007.

Employing the language of humanitarianism is meant to evoke ideas of solidarity with suffering peoples, of the moral imperative to act urgently, ease suffering, and save lives — all of which the people of Gaza – and elsewhere – need in abundance. But journalists and others should be careful, as it can also be a language of moral obfuscation rather than clarity.

For a start, there is little agreement about what “humanitarian” means and which situations qualify to be described by the term. In a 2012 working paper for the Humanitarian Policy Group, Katherine Davies highlights the shape-shifting character of both the term and the concepts it is meant to embody.

What for example does it mean to report on “fears of a humanitarian disaster” in a place that has been suffering “a humanitarian crisis” for nearly two decades?

“Humanitarian is a noun designating an actor, and it is an adjective qualifier of a goal, a principle, an action and an event,” she writes. “What it means depends on who is doing the talking.”

As Davies shows, it has had loose and expansive use since it entered the common lexicon in the 19th century, describing a wide range of activities and sentiments that were not always compatible with each other, or that – for example, eugenics – would even be considered abhorrent today. 

Even much-cited international humanitarian law (IHL) does not offer a definition. In a 1989 paper, Jean-Luc Blondel, head of the ICRC's Division for Policy and Cooperation, wrote that “without actually defining the word ‘humanitarian’, IHL, like other branches of law, makes clear its aims, which are to ensure respect for human life and to promote health and dignity for all”.

But even these aims are not necessarily accepted by all self-professed humanitarian actors. When demands are made to allow humanitarian relief supplies into Gaza and reference is made to the Geneva Conventions, few have in mind ideas like “dignity” and what that might imply. It is solely about ensuring physical survival. But respecting IHL requires much more than just not killing civilians.

As Hugo Slim, who specialises in the study of ethics, war, and humanitarian aid, has pointed out, although the Geneva Conventions are full of civil and political rights, much of the current usage eschews this. It “caricatures humanitarianism as an essentially materialistic concern for physical welfare, manifested in the provision of a range of commodities such as food, water, shelter, and medicine”, Slim writes. Thus, “humanitarian corridors” for Gaza are understood as basic life-support, not avenues to allow the people of Gaza to enjoy the full gamut of protected rights.

Prioritising physical survival in an emergency, even at the expense of a temporary neglect of other rights, is not necessarily an unprincipled or amoral stand. But the emphasis here should be on “temporary”. Restoring civil and political rights should be no less a humanitarian imperative once the emergency passes. The “caricature of humanitarianism” as mere life-support is perhaps most apparent when countries promise humanitarian aid to relieve suffering while blocking attempts to end the bombing that is causing it, as, for example, the United States is doing now in Gaza, and Saudi Arabia long has in Yemen.

As Slim demonstrates, the fact is that self-identifying humanitarian actors of all stripes (who now can even include combatants under the idea of “humanitarian military intervention”) use the same words to mean very different things. And rather than interrogate what is meant, journalists many times deepen the confusion by repeating the terms or even reducing them to seasoning for their headlines and articles. What for example does it mean to report on “fears of a humanitarian disaster” in a place that has been suffering “a humanitarian crisis” for nearly two decades?

It is not necessarily up to journalists to mediate the lexicographic disputes between “humanitarians”. However, it is incumbent on them to provide clarity to their audiences and avoid ambiguity. There is an ethical obligation to unpack what sources mean when employing humanitarian terms and to point out gaps and inconsistencies.

And it is even more important for the media to interrogate its own use of humanitarian language. What does it mean to call a situation a humanitarian crisis and how does it differ from other crises? Is it the same as a humanitarian disaster or emergency?

Is it morally tenable to report on a call for a “humanitarian ceasefire” or “humanitarian aid” without asking whether the goal is to return the population to the previous state of blockade and dispossession, or while ignoring the fundamental drivers of the violence?

Making such distinctions may sound pedantic but can be important in avoiding moral blindness. For some humanitarians operating in wars and certain political contexts, the ability to help those in emergency need is contingent on principles such as neutrality and impartiality – which preclude investigation of root causes. What matters is alleviating the immediate suffering, not the reasons for it. According to Blondel, “to be humanitarian, assistance must be given impartially and without interfering with the conduct of hostilities”.

That is not a moral failing, but rather an operational necessity – a way, as Slim puts it, “to achieve their humanitarian ideals within an environment which is essentially hostile to those ideals”. But given that the whole point of their occupation is about delivering understanding, not aid, journalists cannot claim the same. Using language that obscures rather than clarifies is, by extension, profoundly unethical.

Therefore, when reporting on activities and scenarios coded as “humanitarian”, it is imperative to explain what is being referenced and, importantly, what is not. Does describing the situation in Gaza resulting from the current Israeli bombardment as a “humanitarian crisis” obscure the lived reality of much of the last two decades there? Is it morally tenable to report on a call for a “humanitarian ceasefire” or “humanitarian aid” without asking whether the goal is to return the population to the previous state of blockade and dispossession, or while ignoring the fundamental drivers of the violence?

The problem is not confined to the Middle East. A recent report suggested that “complex, protracted crises are increasingly the norm”, and 83% of people in need live in countries that have had UN-backed emergency response appeals for at least five years straight. It is important both when describing the situations and responses to them, that journalists are careful, thoughtful, consistent, and open about how they employ humanitarian language and what they mean by it. A humanitarian disaster can indeed happen in the context of a humanitarian crisis, but only if one is clear about the meanings one attaches to those terms.

In this regard, an internal working group established by The New Humanitarian to look at its own practice has suggested a distinction between a humanitarian emergency and a humanitarian crisis. A future instalment of this column will take a look at what has been proposed, why, and how this could impact how we cover situations and events in the future.

Please send thoughts and critiques to [email protected].

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