The “New Humanitarianism” and Rule vs. Act Utilitarianism (Consequentialism)

In chapter 3 of Humanitarian Intervention Weiss analyses “new wars” and “new humanitarianisms.”  The changing nature of humanitarian work is characterized by many things, but I’d like to focus on one particularly, which will lead us to a discussion of the importance of neutrality and the concepts of rule and act utilitarianism.

Weiss argues that humanitarian responses, by NGOs particularly,  are becoming more ambitious in scope and thereby shifting from a focus on short-term emergency relief to “attacking the root causes and post-conflict peacebuilding.” He continues,

“rather than provide band-aids, they [humanitarians] wish to use assistance and protection as levers. Many aid agencies desire to spread development, democracy, and human rights and create stable, effective, and legitimate states.” (76)

This has led, concomitantly, to a change in the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality. These principles, Weiss notes, “made sense if the objective was to provide relief and gain access to affected populations.” These principles, it is argued, foundered upon the reality that contemporary wars–“new wars”–were creating “unanticipated and unintended negative consequences.” Moreover, in a world in which the combatants are state militaries, neutrality and impartiality retained some internal logic. However, as genocidaires and other ty[es of rebel groups become the main combatants in civil wars and the predominant perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the principles of neutrality and impartiality come to be seen increasingly as relics of a bygone era.

A few students took issue with this argument, insisting that there are also likely to be unintended consequences of humanitarian organizations repudiating the principles of neutrality and impartiality. They mentioned some of these in class. This prompted a quick excursion by me into the difference between act and rule utilitarianism/consequentialism. I’ll explain below the fold:

Bosnia Muslim leaders argued that the neutrality policy allowed Messrs. Karadzic and Mladic free reign in their campaign to ethnically cleanse large swaths of Bosnia of (well-fed) Muslims.

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