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Moral Imperatives and Political Realities

  • David Rieff


Thomas Weiss's essay is a fine contribution to the current conversation within the humanitarian international, but there is a worrying absence of a broader, extra-humanitarian context in the discussion. There is no question that “Human Rightsism” has become the dominant political ideology of the international new class, and the common currency of UN treaties, academic conferences, and charitable foundation mission statements.

What remains open to question is whether, in the field, where humanitarians and human rights activists do their work, this revolution is real, or whether it is instead a fiction well-intentioned Westerners have chosen to believe in because otherwise the realities of the contemporary world would seem too bleak. It is an ironic reality that humanitarian workers and human rights activists have become the last interventionists. But should the humanitarian movement be embarking down the path of demanding more political action and, when necessary in order to allow humanitarians to do their work, military intervention? Should, as relief agencies insist, humanitarian considerations always take pride of place? There are unexamined assumptions here that need to be thought through more rigorously than those engaged in the debate have seemed willing to do.



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1 Moore, Jonathan, ed., Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), p. xii.

2 Anyone doubting this has only to read William Shawcross's account of the U.S.-led aid effort along the Thai-Cambodian border after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).

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Moral Imperatives and Political Realities

  • David Rieff


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