Saturday, August 21, 2010

Killing humanitarian workers

On August 19, 2003, the UN was terror-bombed in Baghdad, slaughtering 22 people who were there on humanitarian missions.
On August 5, this year, this month, 10 more unarmed aid workers were intentionally murdered in Afghanistan. [pictured: office of aid organization whose workers were attacked on Aug. 5]
In 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were murdered, most of them in just three nations: Afghanistan, Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan.
What does this mean?
There are many interesting perspectives, some favoring more military intervention and some suggesting that increased militarism is responsible for much of it.
The simple solution, according to rightwing and US government analysts, is more guns to protect these workers--especially in Afghanistan. That is the intuitive, imperial, commonsense view, reminiscent of the British author and poet Hilaire Beloc, who ended one of his 1898 poems with the lines that underscore the attitudes that most Euro-US militarists have (updated to the new millennium):
Whatever happens we have got
the Maxim gun and they have not.

In other words, it's like the Fred Ward military officer character in the 1988 film, Off Limits, who told the Vietnamese officer, "We are never outgunned."
And more guns were the policy in the occupation of Vietnam right up to the point of loss and retreat, which is exactly what is going to happen in Afghanistan.
The complexity of the risks to humanitarian aid workers cannot be overstated.
If they take military protection, they are targeted by insurgents.
If they assist the regular folks on the ground they are viewed with suspicion by both insurgents--who are always justifiably paranoid about spies--and by the occupiers, who are afraid of humanitarian aid workers developing too much sympathy for guerrilla troops. And the occupying troops just don't like independent witnesses; they like to control all the news and messages coming out of 'their' country.
Since the founding of the Red Cross in 1863 these dynamics have been felt by humanitarian aid workers. Many have gone past the militarists' intuition that we must never be outgunned to the nonviolent knowledge that our neutrality is underscored by our vulnerability. And indeed, for most of the past century and more, international humanitarian aid workers who do not accept military protection are often more safe than are the ones who do.
At this juncture, the conspiracy-minded might suggest that the militarists are happy that the Taliban is claiming they killed the 10 aid workers from the International Assistance Mission. [pictured: Tom Little, one of the 10 murdered workers]
See? We need more troops there. We need to outgun the Taliban. Some even suggest that our CIA was involved in some perverse plot to escalate that sentiment of deepening the occupation on the justification that we need to overwhelm the obviously insane Islamicists who cut off hands, stone those who fall in love and elope, and fire cannons into statues of Buddha.
If this is our logic, we will need to own that country, colonize it, and stay there for several hundred years. Since that is not the plan, we hope, we need alternatives. The nonviolent alternative is a two-part plan:
  1. Get out.
  2. Support nonviolent indigenous, UN and INGO efforts.
Some say that international humanitarian aid workers are at high risk. Correct. But since thousands of armed fighters get killed in these wars, are the aid workers the ones more at risk? Is nonviolence really more risky than violence? All deaths--each individual death--are consummate tragedies, and the safest path is to stay at home and avoid helping anyone except oneself. But if one is intent on helping the world, the statistically safe mode is not only unarmed but avowedly nonviolent and not accepting military 'protection' of any sort. Just as in all other nonviolent efforts, our vulnerability is our paradoxical power, because it represents power with, not power over, and is more often respected out of admiration rather than fear. Fear leads more often to violence, which is not rocket science, but it's still counterintuitive to many. Once we finally get that, we can convince Americans to draw down and join the community of humanity instead of trying to rule it.

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