Playing Politics with Compassion after the Paris Attacks (and why humanitarianism is in trouble)

19 November 2015, 1307 EST

Photo Credit: ruimc77 on Flickr

In response to the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 129 people President Obama stated:

Once again, we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians.  This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.

President Obama’s statement was a resounding call for universal compassion; the emphasis on “all of humanity” and “universal values” recalls the language of humanitarianism, enshrined in the foundational documents of the United Nations (UN) including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related covenants. In the aftermath of the attacks, humanitarian values have been threatened by political posturing by the extreme right Front National party in France and by Republican (and one Democrat) governors and presidential hopefuls in the United States who are calling for either a suspension of Syrian refugee resettlement programs in the United States or limiting resettlement to only Christian refugees. Yesterday, France’s president François Hollande defied extreme right opposition and announced a commitment to accepting 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

The xenophobic and racist policies being advocated by US Republican governors and presidential candidates are an alarming affront to humanitarianism, threaten core humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality and presage a backsliding of humanitarian policy to an unenlightened era.


Today, we rattle off the definition of the principle of humanity–protecting the life and dignity of all humans regardless of their race, gender, ability or creed. It bears remembering this expanded definition of “humanity” is relatively new. Prior to the modern era of post-WWII international institutions designed to maintain and foster world peace, the scope of “humanity” was limited to white, Christian peoples, and humanitarian activities included proselytizing and bringing civilization to ‘backwards’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples. The ‘white man’s burden’ and colonization are perhaps the clearest examples of how Western countries viewed their duties to spread Christianity and Western notions of civilization under the guise of humanitarianism.

Salient normative changes—the abolition of slavery, which ‘humanized’ inhabitants of colonies; the rise of liberal norms that gained momentum in 18th and 19th century Europe; and a shift toward anti-colonization—expanded the definition of ‘humans’ from white Christians to include all people.

Today, this universal definition of humanity informs humanitarianism and means that human beings intrinsically have ethical obligations to one another—obligations that transcend kinship, nationality, and religion and derive solely from our shared humanity. We identify with distant strangers because we see ourselves in them; the (short-lived) solidarity expressed for 3-yr old refugee Aylan Kurdi is a primary example of this. Fear-mongering and xenophobic immigration policies threaten to erase fifty years of progress on crafting an inclusive definition of humanity.



While we commonly speak of the secular ideals of humanitarianism and human rights, religious authorities played pivotal roles in shaping and diffusing the content of modern humanitarianism. It is ironic that Republican governors and presidential hopefuls in the US have co-opted the Christian religion calling for only Christian refugees to be admitted to the US because Christian leaders were essential to shaping the non-partisan principle of impartiality.

On April 11, 1963 Pope John XXII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris emphasized the dignity of every human person and specifically referred to the fundamental political, cultural, religious and economic rights of all humans and of developing nations. Religious leaders enacted this humanitarian discourse during the 1968 Biafra famine in Nigeria. Rabbis, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests made the case for humanitarian intervention in Biafra by supporting the emerging norm of self-determination and emphasizing the principles of impartiality and humanity. They dissociated from the politics of their home governments (often former colonizers) and distanced themselves from their previous practice of proselytization to establish legitimacy for their humanitarian activities in Biafra. Rabbi Tanenbaum articulates the novelty of impartiality at the time:

This was the first time that the entire Jewish community volunteered to join with Catholics and Protestants on an international humanitarian endeavor to serve people who were not Jewish and were not likely to become Jews. [2]

Don’t get me wrong, the impartiality principle is often abrogated, every year organizations publish lists of “Forgotten Emergencies” humanitarian crises that never made it to the news cycle, forgotten and underfunded because they did not align with the strategic interests of major powers. Tragedies in Rwanda, Sudan and currently in Burundi are constant reminders that the humanitarian system remains skewed.

The astounding xenophobic and racist policy proposals that limit resettlement to Christians or refuse resettlement altogether are a different kind of threat to impartiality however. The governors of 31 states who refuse resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states (the fact that they don’t have the legal authority to inhibit resettlement is not the point) are blatantly and overtly rejecting the principle of impartiality in favor of clear partisanship.

US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has called for a religious test for refugees trying to resettle in the US, emphasizing “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.” Jeb Bush, advocates for creating safe havens for refugees in Syria, with the exception of Christian refugees “But I do think there is a special important need to make sure that Christians from Syria are being protected because they are being slaughtered in the country and but for us who?”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, recognizes the corrosive power of this political posturing that “demonizes” refugees and turns them into scapegoats. US religious organizations have also issued statements emphasizing nondiscrimination and a continuation of resettlement policies.


Hope for the Humanitarian Imperative?

In a speech yesterday to a gathering of France’s mayors, French President François Hollande reiterated France’s humanitarian values and promised to honor his commitment to resettle Syrian refugees in France. In fact, President Hollande committed to welcoming 30,000 refugees over the next two years, a higher figure than the 24,000 refugees he committed to accepting in September of this year, stating that “France’s humanitarian obligation to the refugees is coupled with the duty to protect the French people.” [2]

Hollande stated

The terrorists’ plan is to submerge our country in terror and disunity. So we have to preserve, in each city in France, the unity that constitutes our strength and the sang-froid that constitutes our dignity. [3]

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, herself a former refugee from Czechoslovakia, echoes Hollande in an op-ed yesterday

Our enemies have a plan. They want to divide the world between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between the defenders and attackers of Islam. By making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into their hands. Instead, we need to clarify that the real choice is between those who think it is OK to murder innocent people and those who think it is wrong. By showing that we value every human life, we can make clear to the world where we stand.

Modern humanitarianism has evolved from the 1960s version of “charitable assistance” to distant others to rights-based approaches that recognize the long-standing political, economic and structural factors that breed and exacerbate humanitarian crises. Using the lens of humanitarianism, Hollande and Albright’s statements, like Obama’s at the G20 meeting yesterday, reflect an understanding of humanitarianism as an intertwinement of (human) security and human rights. Focusing on humanitarian principles—impartiality, neutrality, humanity—and human rights generates policies and practices designed to preserve human dignity and alleviate human suffering, but also closes the gap between “others” and “us” creating solidarity and a mutual obligation to respond.

Scapegoating refugees creates divisions and disunity that recalls an outdated mode of humanitarianism dripping with racism and xenophobia (and ironically similar to the rhetoric of Daesh). This is a battle of ideas, a battle of humanitarianisms, but not a battle of the West vs. the rest because sadly, many in the West are on the wrong side.


[1] Why Daesh? Because words matter.

[2] As related by Oesterreicher, J. M. 1968. Address to the Edith Stein guild, October 12, at Statler Hilton Hotel, New York, NY.).

[3] My translation

[4] My translation