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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .


In the Shadow of ?Just Wars?: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action
Fabrice Weissman (Ed) in collaboration with Medecins Sans Frontieres

London: Hurst and Company, 2004, 372 pp, PB, ISBN 1-85065-737-8

In the introduction to this volume, Jean-Herve Bradol invokes the ?logic of a culinary recipe ? you can?t make an omelette without breaking eggs? (5). Here Bradol is making reference to the callous disregard to the human cost of conflict throughout the world.

The ?breaking of eggs? is the metaphor for ?the premature extinction of part of humanity? (5). The making of the ?omelette?, i.e. the production of order, the construction of a better world, the continuation of the existing order or the development of a new political order, is the justification for ?breaking eggs?. This quest ?demands its quota of victims? whether it is in Chechnya or the Congo, Ethiopia or East Timor (4). The ?inevitable? death of part of humanity, whether ?spectacularly violent? or ?slow extinction?, Bradol argues become ?so perfectly integrated into the social landscape that it becomes invisible? (5).

This edited volume is written by a number of international experts in collaboration with members of Medicins Sans Frontieres. The book is sub-divided between ?Situations? (Chapters 1 to 11) and ?Points of View? (Chapters 12 to 17).

The ?Situations? section is a series of case studies in which NGOs and Medicins Sans Frontieres have been actively involved, from Afghanistan and Angola through to Sudan and Sierra Leone. This section moves from the ?particular? to the ?general? in it?s analysis of eleven major conflicts and international reaction to these ?Just Wars?. The book focuses on a five-year period spanning the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

International reaction is seen as taking three forms according to the ?situation?, Intervention, Involvement & Abstention.

Intervention takes the form of armed force followed by international stewardship of the ?liberated territories?, with ?collective security? and ?universal morality? being the justification (10). The ?intense humanitarian performance? legitimises the war while overlooking ?crimes committed during its prosecution? (10). East Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan are the examples used in this context.

Involvement is seen as both diplomatic and humanitarian but with the expressed intention to address the latter. Aid, however, tends to be subjected to a mainly partisan political agenda. North Korea, Angola and Sudan are the case studies referred to in this respect.

Abstention is characterised by ?international indifference? to the extreme brutality of certain conflicts, ?this equates to issuing the principal belligerents with a licence to kill? as in the case of Liberia, Chechnya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Columbia and Algeria.

The second part of this book deals with ?Points of View? and raises some ?thematic? issues affecting humanitarian action. Based on practical experiences, this section examines both the successes and ?tragic failures? of international responses to crisis and the humanitarian consequences. It deals with a range of issues regarding the role of NGOs and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

One of the central issues addressed by this book questions the relationship between humanitarian actors and political power and whether that relationship may at times compromise the quality of aid. It also urges those organisations and actors to rethink the meaning of a humanitarian approach and to reflect upon their current and changing position (4). Reference is made to those NGOs who had previously been asked to join ?just wars? initiated by Western powers.

This further raises the question as to the stance of NGOs in relation to the ?proliferation? of ?just wars? and to their position vis--vis government funding of humanitarian aid and the increasing role of public and private companies in the work previously the ?domain? of NGOs, Iraq being the case in point.

?This tendency has been exacerbated in Iraq by the US government?s increased use of private profit-making companies to undertake functions that were formerly the exclusive preserve of NGOs. Many NGOs fear that they will lose out to private companies, which are already claiming larger amounts of the NGO ?market? and hence prefer to play the role requested of them to preserve their ?market share?? (271).

In the Shadow of ?Just Wars? argues that the ubiquitous question of the ?neutrality? of the NGO?s must be reassessed in the context of the ?proliferation? of ?just wars? and the discourse stemming from the ?right to intervene? and the ?war on Evil? (3). In many cases more powerful forces and the manner in which use of force is deployed have compromised their position. In such situations the principle of ?neutrality? has been severely tested.

?Although humanitarian action remains neutral with regards to the motives that compel protagonists to kill each other, it does not remain so when they decide to attack non-combatants. The conduct of military operations in Iraq raises a number of questions in this respect? (14).

In the Shadow of ?Just Wars? is written and presented in a very informative and detailed manner. The case studies and issues raised make this book compelling reading and intensely thought provoking. At the heart of the book are issues that pose many political, philosophical, moral and above all humane questions. While it is also a very accessible book, at times it makes ?essentially uncomfortable? reading. In doing so, it challenges the conscience of the reader and, hopefully, those in positions of power who happen to open its pages. This is indeed, one of its strengths!

The only ?draw back? is that it does not deal with two of the most important contemporary issues, Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflicts. While the book acknowledges the omission of the latter and deals with aspects of the former, I feel that some detailed discussion of both should have been included. Nevertheless this is an important book that will appeal to a wide and diverse readership. It will be an essential book for academics, researchers and students in the areas of peace and conflict studies, politics, social sciences, international relations and legal studies. It will also appeal to NGO activists and to the ?lay person? concerned with injustice and suffering brought about by conflict and war. Above all it will appeal to those who care!

?Humanitarian action can still oppose the elimination of part of humanity by exemplifying an art of living founded on the pleasure of unconditionally offering people at risk of death the assistance that will allow them to survive. Doing so makes victories over the most lethal forms of politics possible? (22).


Dr Alan Grattan, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences, University of Southampton, INCORE Associate (formerly of University of Ulster)



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