Good vs. good

DAVID RIEFF is the author of "At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention" and "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis."

THE CRISIS IN Darfur has exposed many fault lines. One of the cruelest is the emerging divide between the human rights activists grouped around the Save Darfur coalition in the U.S. (and S.O.S. Darfur in Western Europe) and the humanitarian workers in relief groups working on the ground in Darfur and across the border in Chad with refugees and internally displaced people.

Surprised to hear that they’re in conflict? Most members of the general public understandably imagine that human rights advocacy groups and humanitarian relief organizations are natural allies -- both on the side of the angels, fighting against brutality and repression on behalf of refugees and the oppressed and the threatened. This belief is surely reinforced by the fact that we routinely describe interventions that are designed to protect people from mass murder or ethnic cleansing as “humanitarian” interventions when, in fact, that may not be the case at all. In the case of Darfur, where at least 200,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes in recent years, the opposite may be true.

News stories have reported that a number of relief groups on the ground in Darfur (most notably, Doctors Without Borders, which has one of the largest and most effective programs in the region) had been privately complaining about Save Darfur’s activities in the U.S. -- complaints that many believe led to a shake-up in the organization and its board’s decision to remove the group’s director, David Rubenstein.


What prompted the complaints were a series of ads run by Save Darfur calling for more aggressive action in Darfur, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over western Sudan to prevent attacks by the Sudanese air force on the Darfurians. For humanitarian relief groups, the effect of this, however well intended, would be to put the on-the-ground aid effort at risk because the relief organizations themselves fly constantly over Darfur in aircraft virtually indistinguishable from those fielded by the government of Sudan.

Even more important, relief organizations including Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger argue that this no-fly zone would have to be established without Khartoum’s consent and, as an Action Against Hunger statement put it, would “have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.”

Some activists in the U.S. have taken this message to heart. But the general thrust of the activists’ message has been that either a no-fly zone or some kind of outside military intervention is the only thing that will stop what they believe is a slow-motion genocide.

Generally, humanitarian aid groups see nothing wrong with advocacy organizations like Save Darfur campaigning to mobilize world public opinion about the plight of the Darfurians (though some of the mainline relief NGOs, notably Doctors Without Borders, have disputed the assertion that what’s going on in Darfur is, in fact, genocide). But they are quick to point out that human rights activists do not remain on the ground in Darfur and do not have the burden of looking after the immediate needs of the refugees and the internally displaced. To the relief groups, the chief danger of an outside military intervention is that, to paraphrase that infamous remark by the American officer in Vietnam, the interveners will destroy Darfur in order to save it.

Pro-intervention advocates in the human rights community, in contrast, tend to take the view that relief workers are being too cautious. They point out that the same anxieties were voiced by many aid groups during the Bosnian war and in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, and that, given Khartoum’s refusal to curb its murderous surrogates in Darfur, outside military intervention is the only viable solution both practically and morally. In their view, allowing the current political and military situation to continue so that humanitarian aid can be dispensed may have short-term benefits, but it condemns the Darfurians to a future of endless human destruction. Far from helping, they argue, relief without intervention amounts to keeping people alive now so the Sudanese government forces can kill them later -- a Band-Aid on a cancer, as some activists put it.

There is no question that both sides believe they are acting morally. And, in fairness, it should be noted that there are some in the humanitarian aid community who do favor outside intervention, even if they have been reluctant to voice this view publicly.


But even taking these shadings into account, the disagreement is fundamental. It illustrates the sad truth that not only do all good things not go together, but that in fact they can sometimes be in opposition to each other. As the philosopher Hegel observed: “Tragedy is the conflict between two rights.”

Of course, whether an international military intervention in Darfur would even be effective is an open question. The international forces would be protecting more than 100 refugee camps in an area the size of France with a force that even the most optimistic estimate places at no more than 30,000 troops. And some people involved in the peace negotiations between Khartoum and the rebels believe that an intervention would solve nothing.

The dispute between advocacy groups and relief organizations, however, is systemic rather than Darfur-specific. Similar tensions existed, for example, between human rights advocates and relief groups in Kosovo at a time when the advocacy groups were calling for stepped-up military action. And in the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, feminist groups desperate to see an end to the Taliban’s oppression of women clashed repeatedly with aid groups, which viewed any war as likely to cause enormous human suffering.

Starkly put, human rights groups want solutions to crises -- including military solutions if necessary -- whereas humanitarian relief NGOs seek to palliate the effects of war and ethnic cleansing, and they believe that outside military interventions make their position on the ground untenable because neutrality is at the core of the humanitarian enterprise.

They point out that, in fact, the logic of “humanitarian intervention” is regime change -- a charge that at least some advocates do not deny. What is not in dispute is that, in the final analysis, the activist politics of confrontation and the humanitarian politics of palliation are incompatible, much as both sides might wish it otherwise.