The Referendum on staying in the EU strikes me not as a “great festival of democracy” but more an invitation for tyranny of the majority. Issues this important and decisions this enduring should be decided on the basis of principles and analysis, not a direct measure of popular sentiment or, worse still, fear-stoked self-interest. It also strikes me as full of lessons for humanitarians.
The process has almost boiled down UK membership in the EU to the single issue of refugees/migrants (Trumping for many potential economic ruin) – yet another historic chapter in the denigration of an entire category of human beings due to otherness, this time based on a fear of kebab houses, long-bearded men who aren’t hipsters and increased wait times in the Tory-gutted National Health Service. The tenor of this debate, as that of the more general ‘migrant crisis’, signals well the moribund status of ideals such as humanitarianism.
If that were not enough, then consider the appeal to the EU as a protector of human rights, justice, working class dignity, and democracy itself against the (Tory party’s) British government. Here’s one poster:
The argument, relatively common, strikes me as too common, too causally passed from podium to populous, its accuracy familiar and suffered like the crappy British summer rather than revolting. There is something fundamentally wrong with governance in Britain if it cannot, on its own, protect its citizens and residents from injustice, overzealous anti-terrorism legislation, and the tyranny of the corporate elite. We humanitarians berate governments in places like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iraq for similar domestic shortcomings. We do so with no small hint of frustration and condescension, an angry and smug appeal to the ‘enlightened’ external world – to the universality and binding commitments of international human rights – that has not yet overtaken the primitive internal state. Can it be that in Great Britain, such lustrous ideals and protections similarly depend upon a relatively full panoply of external laws and courts?
As I (and many others, no less than the UN Secretary General) have blogged elsewhere, the plug seems to have been pulled on the belief that governments should allow such ideals and commitments to constrain self-interest. This downward spiral lies not just in the behavior of states with long dark track records, but in the strengthening norm among the usual champions of international law, human rights, and multilateral civility. The EU’s decision on migrants seems perfectly emblematic in this regard. It should function as a wake-up buzzer, an indication that humanitarian protection needs a new strategy.
In places like South Sudan, Syria or Central African Republic, humanitarians confront their increasing impotence, an inability to appeal to international commitments and norms that were never fully upheld, but at least held some power. As Ban Ki-moon declared, “our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law.” As a practice, humanitarian protection – the duty of humanitarians to move beyond a sterile delivery of material assistance and work towards protection – seems depressingly lost. Experts convene and much more easily describe the abysmal state of affairs than potential ways forward. This report of such a meeting held last June (disclosure, I am one of the authors), for example, identified three potentially useful strategies, but without any delusion that they solve the problem:
[… a] strengthened capacity to leverage political and armed actors resulting from (1) better analysis, of the sort that reveals not only the violations/abuses but also potential tactics towards ending them […]; (2) a deliberate, broader engagement with a wide range of actors external to the humanitarian sector; and, (3) greater humanitarian independence from political power.
Perhaps, as I have come to understand on the eve of the UK’s EU Referendum, there really is something quite wrong with the necessity of appealing to external, supra-sovereign covenants in order to guarantee fundamental human rights. Such agreements work well enough for technical issues, like patent law or aviation safety, but perhaps we should never have diverted so much effort into the internationalization of our humanity. Instead, we should have focused that energy and effort into its localization, into all the different locals, from the ground up. Perhaps therefore we need to accept the decline of universal norms and official disregard for international covenants, and begin the 25-year march not to their reaffirmation but their replacement at each and every national level. Local civil society as the centerpiece, rather than us international do-gooders. Because in or out of a common union should affect commerce, travel and cross-border law enforcement, not justice, rights or democracy.