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Mainstream, VOL LX No 9, 10 New Delhi, February 19, February 26, 2022 [Special Double number]

Exploring the Imperial Connections of “Humanitarianism” | Arup Kumar Sen

Thursday 17 February 2022, by Arup Kumar Sen


In his recent polemical text titled ‘Reflections on Violence, Law and Humanitarianism”, carried in Critical Inquiry (Vol. 41, No. 2, 2015), the eminent anthropologist, Talal Asad has probed the genealogy of “humanitarianism” and located its embeddedness in the discourse of imperialism: “As word, concept, and practice, humanitarianism emerged in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of European nation states, the expansion of European colonial empires and the global development of capitalism...The European drive to expand, by conquest, into areas where non-Europeans lived, and the latter’s consequent subjection, should not therefore be seen as a simple failure to fulfill the Enlightenment promise of universal equality. The idea of difference is built into the concept of the human”. (ibid.)

Asad has also explored the historical trajectory of “humanitarian” violence of European imperialism in the 19th century:

The places that most interested West European humanitarians in the nineteenth century were in the weakening Ottoman Empire. The massacres that occurred in European controlled territories — in the Belgian Congo, for example, in German South-West Africa, in the United States, in the Philippines, or in Algeria — did not call for “international” protection. But to regard this difference as a simple matter of double standards is to fail to see fully its ideological underpinning. The justifications of such violence were of course multiple, but the motive always included self-defense of humanity in the widest sense. (ibid.)

What is the modern form of “humanitarian” violence in the 21st century? To put it in the words of Talal Asad: “Small wars might be thought of as proto-humanitarian interventions to the extent that they claimed to establish (imperial) peace and law in place of instability and cruelty...Today the work of pacification has become more complex, acquiring, as in the recent U. S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a humanitarian dimension: converting the barbarians to freedom and progress that their humanity demands and, when that is not possible, eliminating them because of their inhumanity”. (ibid.)

Asad has drawn our attention to the legal route through which the United Nations has justified imperial violence:

Colonialism has long ended, but the United Nations has recently justified military intervention into ex-colonial countries for humanitarian purposes by adopting a new legal norm known as the “Responsibility to Protect”. (ibid.)

Talal Asad’s discourse enlightens us about how “humanitarianism” has been used in nuanced ways as a tool of imperialism in different phases of history.

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