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date: 22 May 2017

Critical Perspectives on Humanitarian Discourses

Summary and Keywords

Critical studies of humanitarian discourses involve the study of the arguments, claims, and evidence that are used to justify intervention or non-intervention in key local, regional, national, or international contexts. These discourses can take the form of arguing over whether we should practice isolationism and not intervene in the sovereign affairs of other countries, or they can take the form of deliberations over the transcend needs of populations that cope with myriad disasters. In some cases these discourses are produced by foreigners who believe that the less fortunate need to be rescued from their misery, while at other times humanitarian discourses can be used in discussions about the human rights of the disempowered. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), nation-states, celebrities, medical communications, and militaries are just a few of the rhetors that produce all of these humanitarian discourses.

Keywords: celebrity humanitarianism, humanitarian discourses, medical humanitarianism, military humanitarianism, non-interventionism, critical perspectives

Critical Perspectives on Humanitarian Discourses

This article provides readers with examples of how diverse empowered and disempowered communities use human rights rhetoric in order to encourage intervention, beginning with a basic definitional exercise to help frame the following commentaries. Chouliaraki once defined humanitarian communication as the “rhetorical practices of transnational actors that engage with universal ethical claims, such as common humanity or global civil society, to mobilize action on human suffering” (2010, p. 108). This is obviously a very broad definition, which could include the activities of both non-state and state actors, but it gets at the idea that there are those who intersubjectively view humanitarian concerns as transcendent human values.

Since at least the late 1980s, the topic of humanitarian discourse has gained resonance in many communication and interdisciplinary circles. Lyon (2013, p. 1), for example, has noted that whether we are talking about the education of children of undocumented immigrants, the images from Abu Ghraib, the wisdom of banning of the hijab (head scarf), or the question of whether we should “intervene in the governance of other nations,” our deliberations in a globalized era end up taking us in the direction of international and civil rights. Hauser (2012), approaching the topic of human rights and “human rights talk” from a slightly different angle, emphasized the need for what he calls “thick moral vernaculars” about human rights.1 These everyday conversations, which included commentary from the disempowered, reminds us of the symbolic and material consequences of a “performance of gratuitous violence,” like the systematic dehumanization that attended the tattooing of Jewish inmates at Auschwitz (Hauser, 2012, p. 39). This is why humanitarian rhetorics can also be used in contemporary conversations regarding restorative justice, where many elites and members of the public debate about the relevance of acknowledging past wrongdoing, apologia, the repatriation of abject objects, and possible reparations (Hasian, 2014).

Regardless of our preferred choice of quantitative, qualitative, or critical methodologies, what unites many communication researchers is the shared interest in the study of matters of social justice, political power, and economic equality. Shome (2014, pp. 3–4), for example, in her study of mass media representations of Princess Diana after 1997, showed how many underprivileged women of color still have to cope with problematic constructions of national identity and white femininity that belie the notion that England’s changing multicultural face has made room for the foreign“ other.” As explained in more detail below, our contemporary studies of the presence or absence of humanitarianism now involve not only the study of public addresses or other written texts but the visual materials that appear on television screens or the memes that circulate in the blogosphere. Hartnett (2013) was surely on point when he remarked in his study of Tibet and ethnic Tibetan communities in China and India that often communication scholars confront competing textual and visual representations of liberation, occupation, and resistance as they study the “perplexing status of human rights in an age of globalization …” (p. 286).

This is not to say that all communication scholars are going to define such terms as “human rights,” “dehumanization,” or “humanitarian discourse” in the same way. The inherent polysemic (multiple meanings) and polyvalent (many values) nature of language itself, as well as our varied subject positions and competing motivations in life, ensure that there will be times when scholars and researchers may disagree about whether there exists such a thing as “collective security” rights that trump individual privacy interests, or whether the notion of “military humanitarianism” is an oxymoron. Yet regardless of our subjective political commitments when we do disagree, we often converse and debate about these humanitarian topics using similar arguments and frames of reference, and this article provides readers with an overview of some of the common topoi and grammars used these conversations. It is important that those who are concerned about humanitarian discourses get some sense of what interdisciplinary scholars mean when they converse about “non-intervention” or the “responsibility to protect” (R2P).

With this in mind, the rest of this article has been divided into four major segments. The first provides a brief historical overview of some of the rhetorical genres and the prior debates that we have had about the meanings of “humanity,” “humanitarianism,” “human rights,” and “non-interventionism,” while the second explains how contemporary generations are currently coping with persuasive messages coming from different humanitarian domains. The second segment also decodes what we mean when we qualify our humanitarianism and talk about “medical humanitarianism,” “celebrity humanitarianism,” or “military humanitarianism.” The third part extends some of this analysis by discussing how some have tried to provide for more “muscular” humanitarian discourses by advocating the universal adoption of what is called a “responsibility to protect.” Finally, in the last portion of the article, the continued relevance of these humanitarian discourses in 21st-century contexts is discussed.

The Contested Nature of Humanitarian Discourse and the Historical Origins of “Non-Intervention” Principles

As Ferme (2013, p. 51) explains, “humanitarian discourse is contested and contradictory”; Douzinas (2007) argues that the concept of “humanity” is a modernist invention, inherited from the Roman word “humanitas.” It was related to the term “paideia,” which signified culture and education. A few of the interdisciplinary scholars who study humanitarian discourse contend that some of the first recorded Greek conversations in our historical archives about these philosophical ideas contained fragments that showed that “humanitas” did not refer to the need to protect all human beings who lived in ancient times. The Romans, for example, distinguished between the homo humanus, the educated Roman who followed laws and had civic virtue, and the homo barbarus, who was not regulated by the jus civile (civil notions of justice). The Romans used permutations of these ideas to “impress their superiority upon the world” (Douzinas, 2007, p. 1). The rest of this article will illustrate some of the tensions that exist between these narrow and broad ways of conceptualizing humanitarian discourse that are still a part of our contemporary rhetorical cultures.

Christian theologians used a different hermeneutics when they argued that all men and women were a part of a broader spiritual humanity, where everyone who followed certain pathways could be saved through God’s plan for salvation. This was a more collectivist way of configuring humanity. Here there would be no distinction between Roman and barbarian, slave or slave owner (Douzinas, 2007, p. 2). The Roman and Christian conceptualizations of humanity, and citizenship, thus offered competing ways of thinking about how men, women, and children deserved to have what would later be called “human rights.” These choices, in turn, influenced how various rhetoricians and decision-makers argued about the nature and scope of the societal limitations that would be placed on those human rights.

By the end of the 18th-century human rights commentaries were adapted to contemporary needs, as those who sought reformation or revolutionary changes during the Enlightenment contested some of the power of religious institutions or governments and as they talked about the inherent “rationality” of individual human beings. “Liberal” notions of free trade, capitalism, mercantilism, and the right to produce “vernacular” interpretations of the Bible were used to rationalize the joining of anti-slavery movements or revolts against oppressive kings or queens. One’s individual “humanity” gradually became a reason why so many 17th-, 18th-, and early 19th-century commentators wrote or talked about the rationality or reasonableness of the solitary thinker, that liberated person who was allowed to think, to travel, to own a printing press, or to associate with others.

During colonial and imperial periods, many European communities adopted permutations of the old Roman way of configuring humanitas as they decided what conquered peoples in places like Australia, Asia, Africa, or the Americas did or did not serve to be treated humanely. Kapur, in her essay “Human Rights in the 21st Century,” contends that the “record of human rights since their proclamation in the 18th century has been less than stellar” (2006, p. 665). She defends this claim by noting that some reports that looked into the Australian policies of “breeding out” of the “half-caste Aborigine” concluded that “the policy of forced removal, pursued from 1910 to 1970, constituted genocide and recommended the payment of reparations, the provision of services for the affected persons, and the enactment of new laws in the areas of child welfare, family law and juvenile justice” (2006, p. 667). This was clearly not the way that settlers and colonizers in Australia or New Zealand configured aboriginal rights or their own duties to the indigenous communities living on those lands.

The ubiquitous talk of human rights that circulated during the periods when the British and others tried to end slavery, the slave trade, or related forms of colonial abuse forced many Western thinkers to debate about the nature and scope of what we now call humanitarian interventionism. Nineteenth-century rhetors, for example, used the term “atrocity” to cover what we call genocide in today’s debates, and those who believed in the responsibilities that came with “civilizing missions” often complained about the treatment of “natives” in other imperial realms.

In some cases colonizers and imperialists simply did not think that the spilling of the blood of their compatriots was worth the costs of interventionism. Otto von Bismarck, who would later supervise the famous 1885 Berlin Conference designed to stop the European “scramble for empire” in Africa, would write in 1876 that the “Balkans are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier” (Savich, n.d.). In other words, not everyone heeded the calls for humanitarian interventions, and generations had to believe in the merits of this type of social action before they committed time and effort to this humanitarian adventurism.

Over the years, as 19th-century transatlantic audiences heard about the importance of the French intervening in Haiti or the need to stop slavery, atrocity, or abuse in some portion of an empire, decisional rules had to be made in order to distinguish between real or feigned emergencies in the colonies or the metropole. John Stuart Mill wrote a famous essay to provide guiding principles on this topic, entitled “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” that appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in December 1859. Mill (2006) used another of those binary arguments that made mythic distinctions between the rights of the “civilized” and the lack of rights for barbarians. In his essay he argued that only rational, civilized, and law-abiding denizens in the world should have a say in deciding who should go to war or intervene in humanitarian causes: barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal rules of morality between man and man [emphasis in the original] (2006, p. 259). Mill did not go into any great detail spelling out what could, or could not, be done in the name of these “universal rules of morality,” but he clearly felt that those who were further down on the evolutionary ladder deserved fewer rights than those who lived in more mature and developed nations.

Some generations who lived during the 19th century lived to see the rise of the Red Cross, and the slaughters that took place during the Crimean War convinced many of the need to protect civilians during horrifying internal and international conflicts. They started forming conventions and conferences that were the precursors to our Geneva Conventions, and during these meetings they conversed about how members of civilized communities knew how to wage war according to what would later be called “international humanitarian law” (IHL).

John Stuart Mill’s “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” needs to be contextualized as just one of many examples of European commentaries that were trying to rationalize the decisions made when alliances shifted and when interventions were questioned. Mill (2006), in the same way that he circumscribed the rights of the barbarian “other,” thought that he could help set out what he believed were some of the reasonable questions that foreign neighbors needed to ask before intervening in the internal affairs of other “civilized peoples”:

The disputed question is that of interfering in the regulation of another country’s internal concerns; the question whether a nation is justified in taking part, on either side, in the civil wars or party contests of another: and chiefly, whether it may justifiably aid the people of another country in struggling for liberty; or may impose on a country any particular government or institutions, either as being best for the country itself, or as necessary for the security of its neighbours.

(p. 261)

Whether they realized it or not, the Anglo-Americans who would later talk about the need to intervene in Afghanistan or Iraq, when leaders or populations in those countries were “unable” or “unwilling” to chase down the Taliban or al-Qaeda to the satisfaction of the United States or the United Kingdom, were using permutations of these old liberal “non-interventionist” arguments.

Defenders of European civilizing missions had their own critics, and Mill was setting out what he regarded as some of the guiding humanitarian principles of his generation. Whatever choices were made by leaders of civilized nations, argued Mill, it was “very important that nations should make up their minds in time” (2006, p. 258). Moreover, he averred that they needed to make sure that they realized that there were times, outside of war, that warranted foreign interloping. Yet it was a “grave error,” he thought, to believe that “the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians …” (Mill, 2006, p. 259). As Miller (1961, p. 509) noted long ago, Mill’s “final conclusion” seemed to be that “a nobly-intentioned intervention, with England assumed to be nobly-minded, on moral and liberal grounds,” was “justifiable,” and “likely to be successful.” Miller went on to quip that “England alone might” make these interpretations.

Mill’s remarks were not the first nor the last time that those who discussed the rights of the supposed civilized world had to make decisions about the propriety of interventionism or non-interventionism. Think of the complaints that were made about President Clinton’s supposed belated intervention in Kosovo, or the non-intervention into Rwanda, as you read those lines from Mill.

Mill’s liberal notion of “non-interventionism” would appeal to many of his contemporary and future neoliberals, but there were others with more radical ideas about the “rights” of aborigines or other disempowered populations. Radicals like Richard Cobden and John Bright, who saw the need for alliances between those who suffered from the loom (weavers) and from the lash (slaves, realized that some of these problems transcended national boundaries. Those like Mill, who argued with the radicals, believed that the spread of “liberal imperialism” met the test of non-interventionism, and his views were shared by many who carried out civilizing missions of French, British, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgian, and other European powers.

In the same way that the Romans once rationalized their empire building as a form of “humanitas,” British imperialists like Mill could conceive of situations where humanitarian discourse could be used selectively to aid the cause of those civilized communities who sought liberty. Examples of humanitarian intervention between “civilized” powers included the British intervention against the Ottomans over the “Eastern Question” in places like Bulgaria during the 1870s or the European ending of the Belgian King Léopold’s “red rubber” trade before his death during the first decade of the 20th century. Professor Sliwinski (2006) has argued that it was no coincidence that the growing interest in Kodak cameras and other photographic apparatus aided the cause of members of transatlantic Congo reform movements who wanted to stopped the exploitations of African laborers in what used to be called the “Congo Free State.”

Critics today have inherited some of the fragmentary shards from these older debates about non-interventionism and needed humanitarian interventionism. For example, the post-colonial critic Spivak (1988) admonished us to remember that there may be times when we need to speak “with,” instead of just for, or about, the disempowered “other.” Hauser (2012) used a more modernist approach in his study of moral vernacular rhetorics, but he was nevertheless interested in those who used rhetorics of indirection, hunger strikes, or other weapons of the weak as they used whatever social agency they had to fight colonizers and other empowered communities. When Rancière was asked to express his opinions regarding the pursuit of human rights, he opined that the age of the “humanitarian” was one that asked us to identify individual suffering and contrast that with the “plenitude” of others who already possessed human rights:

The eligible party pure and simple is then none other than the wordless victim, the ultimate figure of the one excluded from the logos, armed only with a voice expressing a monotonous moan, the moan of naked suffering, which saturation has made inaudible. More precisely, the person who is merely human then boils down to the couple of the victim, the pathetic figure to whom such humanity is denied, and the executioner, the monstrous figure of a person who denies humanity.

(quoted in Elmer, 2007, pp. 30–31)

This way of conceptualizing humanitarian discourse, which focuses on the disempowered, allows us to keep in mind the humanity of both the torturer and the tortured, the victims of holocausts as well as the génocidaires.

At this point I need to make something explicit that I have been arguing implicitly all along—that not all humanitarian discourse is equal, and that both the empowered and the disempowered can use variants of their rhetorics to rationalize many interventionalist schemes. Professor Orford (2003) has made the important point that instead of taking for granted the beneficent or benign nature of the contemporary humanitarian rhetorics used by empowered nation-states, we need to be cognizant of how many of the legal narratives used for intervening in disaster contexts have colonial and imperial origins.

If this is the case, then we need to see how arguers debate about the meaning of humanitarian discourse in specific historical and contemporary contexts, and so the next section takes up the topic of medical humanitarianism.

Medical Humanitarianism

Medical humanitarianism has recently been defined as the “provision of biomedical, public health, and epidemiological services in conditions of emergency or crisis” (Abramowitz, Marten, & Panter-Brick, 2015, p. 1). In some cases this involves the study of the discourse about prevention of disease, similar to the way we argue about the benefits of vaccines, and at other times it covers such topics as the maintenance of health or the containment of epidemics. These medical humanitarian efforts are carried by organizations like the World Health Organization, the International Red Cross, or the Red Crescent, and there are also times when nation-states are asked to respond to overseas medical emergencies. For example, during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, doctors, nurses, virologists, epidemiologists, and others from Cuba, China, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Kenya, and other nations rendered assistance to the impoverished countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Abramowitz, Marten, and Panter-Brick (2015, pp. 1–2) explain that the “history of medical humanitarianism has paralleled the history of the emergence of the modern world system” and that because of the “intimacy of its health encounters” and the “immediacy of impact” of these measures, it carries “a moral authority that is apparent to those who encounter it.” One of the primary goals of this type of humanitarianism has to do with the alleviation of individual pain and suffering, regardless of one’s nationality, class, ethnicity, or gender.

During the 19th century, for example, the founding of the Red Cross, the signing of the Geneva Convention, and the experiences of the Franco-Prussian War convinced many that medicine’s humanitarian missions could be contrasted with the brutalities of war (Brown, 2010). In theory, the “neutrality” of medical interventionism was supposed to mean that all sides in conflicts should profit from the progress of modern medicine and the universal respect for the preservation of human life.

One interesting example of how NGOs can empower themselves and gain some voice in both elite and public venues can be found in the discourses produced by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. This organization was formed by some European doctors who watched the agonies of Biafrans during the ill-fated war for independence from Nigeria that took place more than four decades ago. MSF is a relatively small NGO—much smaller than the World Health Organization—but it became a major player in global health care by posing as a neutral, apolitical entity. As DeChaine (2005, pp. 93–96) once explained, doctors working for MSF, through the strategic use of the ideograph “humanitarian,” were able to physically and literally “de-territorialize” traditional boundaries by adopting social and special topographies that crossed traditional sovereign borders. These rhetors, by inviting their supporters to believe that humanitarian ethics demanded access to health care “without borderism (sans frontièrisme), were able to impact both the material realities and the symbolic worlds of many who gave, and many who needed, medical attention (DeChaine, 2005, pp. 93–95).

In recent years, especially after 9/11, it has become very apparent that Lakoff was right when he argued that “despite the appearance of a shared moral and technical project,” global health and medical humanitarianism was not a “unified field” (2010, p. 59). He argued that biomedical institutes, philanthropic organizations, and development agencies still used variants of humanitarian discourses as they crafted different global health paradigms and models, but that these communities had conflicting ways of thinking about responsibility and national sovereignty.

One of the paradigmatic shifts that occupied Lakoff’s attention had to do with what he called the “global health security” regime. This was a regime that focused on the importance of biosecurity rhetorics that explained novel dangers that confronted the West when they had to deal with “emerging” infectious diseases (2010, p. 59). In his bifurcated scenarios, Lakoff talked about how the wealthier countries in the world were worried about the diseases emanating from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Some of the biosecurity threats that concerned Westerners were the “exemplary pathogens” that included weaponized smallpox, SARS” and other diseases that were “highly virulent,” noted Lakoff, and the formation of these types of biosecurity regimes were “oriented towards outbreaks that have not yet occurred—and may never occur” [emphasis in the original] (2010, p. 59).

This particular type of medical humanitarian, which focuses on bioterrorism or biosecurity health threats, is controversial because it focuses on the real and imagined dangers of the West and not the eradication of endemic or epidemic diseases overseas. Adoption of this type of paradigm invites us to spend billions of dollars on disease surveillance methods, emergency operations centers, vaccine distribution centers, and other forms of preparedness that take into account not only probable problems but possible ones as well. Calain (2007, p. 7) has argued that the “harvest of outbreak intelligence overseas is essentially geared to benefit wealthy nations,” and those who share these concerns are worried that some forms of biosecurity appropriations of medical humanitarian discourses are hurting the funding for more traditional health problems. Every penny spent on imaginary bioterrorist weaponizing of Ebola, for example, is a penny that cannot be spent on the containment of the spread of malaria, cholera, or the flu.

Celebrity Humanitarianism

Another strand in the weave of humanitarian discourse that has gained popularity over the years is called “celebrity humanitarianism.” As Turner (2004, p. 9) explains, the discourses that swirl around the notion of celebrity can be thought of as a “genre of representation” as well as a “discursive effect,” which makes celebrity status a commodity traded by social agents in “networks of promotion, publicity and media industries.”

Twenty-first-century scholars continue to debate whether celebrities involved in celebrity humanitarianism are selfless heroes and heroines who need to be lionized or publicity seekers who use social media platforms as a way of maintaining their star status. Some celebrity humanitarians craft images that help them become self-appointed promoters of causes, while others point out that internationally recognized organizations like the United Nations use the “star power” of celebrities to discover “ambassadors” to raise consciousness about such issues as refugee problems, disaster relief, or what to do during post-genocidal conflict (Cooper, 2008). While some critics of celebrity humanitarians, like Kapoor, contend that celebrities like Angelina Jolie are really using “show-business-as-adventure” as way of promoting stories that are about “her experiences travelling” to foreign lands, “her guilt,” or “her sympathy” (2013, p. 22), others are convinced that all of this volunteerism fills in needed gaps in aid and makes a substantive difference in the lives of others (see Cooper, 2008).

Sometimes the phenomenon of celebrity humanitarianism goes by several other names—“celebrity advocacy,” “celebrity diplomacy” (Cooper, 2008; Dieter & Kumar, 2001; Wheeler, 2011), “celebrity philanthropy” (Cloud, 2014), “celebrity politics” (Street, 2012), “development advocacy” (Biccum, 2011), or “philanthrocapitalism” (McGoey, 2012; Williams, 2012). All of these researchers, regardless of their choice of lexicon, are trying to get at the question of whether celebrity humanitarianism hurts or helps those who are truly in need, and whether it augments or hides the work of indigenous communities or NGOs dedicated to similar causes.

We all need to accept the fact that there has been a loss of public faith in governmental dispensation of developmental aid, and neoliberals who promote the idea of celebrity advocacy contend that global foreign trade has been accompanied by an incremental rise in expectations that private philanthropy will play a greater role in all of our lives. In theory, private corporate ventures, working with supportive and popular celebrities, can fill in mythic “gaps” that existed between the demand for foreign help and the supply that is not coming from nation-states and those in the “North.” Celebrity humanitarianism, in other words, can provide humanitarian help to those living in the Southern Hemisphere by providing at least some of the scarce resources needed in the regions often characterized as “underdeveloped” or “Third World.”

Some call this philanthrocapitalism because of the geopolitical, economic, and nationalist features of celebrity humanitarianism. As Cloud explained, “the work of such celebrity humanitarianism is closely tied to the neoliberal economic agenda …” (2014, p. 44). At a time when many Anglo-Americans are anxiously witnessing the rising influence of other regional powers—including Brazil, China, and India—the public acknowledgment of the efforts of teams made up of Hollywood celebrities, democratic leaders, UN representatives, NGO employees, and corporate CEOs creates the impression that Western capitalism is alive and well and that concerned rich nations are spreading the wealth in trickle-down projects that use celebrities as their faces.

One of the intriguing facets of this type of humanitarian discourse has to do with the ways that celebrities use a variety of social platforms to spread their messages about their philanthropic efforts. The very notion of a “celebrity” may have something to do with the perceived “aura” or unique rhetorical influence of that person, but as Marwick and Boyd (2011) point out, there are a variety of rhetorical ways in which celebrities interact with their fans and the decision-makers who write and talk about celebrities across various mediums. They suggest that in our future studies of gossip websites, fan websites, blogs, and other mediated places where groups communicate about celebrities, we should think about the networking powers of media that influence celebrity cultures (Marwick & Boyd, 2011). This way of conceptualizing the rhetorical construct of the “celebrity” invites readers to view celebrity status as an “organic and every-changing performative practice rather than a set of intrinsic personal characteristics or external labels” (Marwick & Boyd, 2011, p. 140).

If we take this seriously, then the study of this particular genre of humanitarian discourse would involve the review of circuits of powers, so that we could see who profits—materially and symbolically—from the persuasion that flows in situations where movie stars might be talking about the importance of providing clean water to the needy or the recognition of the Armenian genocide. As Marwick and Boyd (2011, p. 140) noted, celebrities are more than just individuals who are genetically born with some “X-factor”—they are parts of sets of “circulated strategies and practices” that can include semiotic systems, states of being, historical processes of celebritization, and commodified products of mass culture industries. Celebrity humanitarianism, in other words, may have an impact on other circulating humanitarian theories and practices.

What is the persuasive attraction of celebrity humanitarianism? All of this focus on aesthetics, glamour, and glitz allows Western publics, and other global audiences who contribute money to their idols’ causes, to believe that their beloved stars have become informed celebrity diplomats who are pushing for change overseas. One of the major issues that has to be confronted is whether philanthrocapitalism replaces, or reinforces, the very powerful ideologies—capitalism, liberalism, militarism, imperialism, and Westphalian notions of governmentalities—that created impoverished communities in the first place.

At a time when the economic gaps between the rich and poor, North and South, West and the rest, keep growing, traditional developmental programs and established charity organizations find themselves constantly having to deal with what Collier (2007, p. 4) has called “development biz” and “development buzz.” Development “biz” refers to the ways in which privatization has supposedly helped turn charity work into a thriving business, while the development “buzz” refers to the star power that comes when rock stars and other celebrities join particular causes. George Clooney, Madonna, Brad Pitt, Bono, and Oprah Winfrey are just some of the thousands of celebrities who have joined humanitarian causes, and these activists indicate that they want to help with everything from the provision of mosquito nets for malaria to the patrolling of border lands between South Sudan and Sudan.

The growing power of celebrity humanitarianism is controversial enough, but imagine how some of those who are used to hearing about the “neutral” importance of aid regard defenses of “military humanitarianism.”

The Rise of Military Humanitarianism

As noted above, there are many different types of humanitarian discourse, and during the last several decades we have also witnessed the rise of what many now call “military humanitarianism” (Greenburg, 2013). This phrase can be used to justify the literal use of planes, tanks, or ships in major conflicts—like the NATO bombings of Serbia during the late 1990s, the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Coalition’s Operation Iraq Freedom in 2003, etc.—or it can refer to more metaphoric usages of militarist jargon to rationalize some aspect of a humanitarian mission, campaign, or social movement.

In some cases, like the relief missions to post-earthquake Haiti, military humanitarianism can refer to geopolitical interpretations of humanitarian discourse that simultaneously offer a “strong arm” and “friendly hand,” such as organizations like the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that sends soldiers from Latin America and Asia in personnel carriers to the streets of Port au Prince (Greenburg, 2013, p. 95).

For many centuries, militaries who have intervened in the affairs of other countries have used variants of military humanitarian rhetoric to justify their interventionism, but since 9/11, many of these arguments now mix talk of “development” with “security” concerns (Duffield, 2001). While supporters of these evolving grammars contend that military humanitarianism is now needed to help spread democracy and civilization to “failed states” and regions controlled by dictators, critics contend that all of these linguistic devices are being used to hide “humanitarian imperialism” (Bricmont, 2007).

Rhetors in the fields of law, international relations, political science, communication, sociology, and other disciplines who use the phrase “military humanitarianism” often view this as a sign that we are about to hear about the need to “win hearts and minds” during interventionist periods. One example is General David Petraeus, who was once credited with helping move the American occupation in Iraq away from “shock-and-awe” policies and toward what are called “counterinsurgency” strategies and tactics. Petraeus was said to have helped snatch victory from defeat by using a form of military humanitarianism during the “Sunni Awakening” portion of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The phrase “hearts and minds” refers to a specific type of military humanitarianism and is used by many military experts around the world to refer to communicative strategies that are less coercive and more “population-centric” as troops intervening in foreign lands try to show local citizens that they are there for those citizens’ benefit. For example, the circulation of pictures of Coalition troops in Afghanistan helping build schools for young women or soldiers playing soccer with Iraqi youth are used in the formation of photographic image events that convey the impression that most soldiers are not interested in breaking down the doors of insurgents or sending drones after terrorist suspects.

The ideograph “hearts and minds” is a military phrase that emphasizes the importance of trying to gain the support of indigenous populations (Carruthers, 1995, p. 1), and it is usually associated with the tactics that the British used during some of their post–World War II campaigns to retain portions of their empire in Malaya. In theory, the use of military humanitarianism benefits both the interventionists as well as those who need the help of the occupying forces.

Often this discussion of counterinsurgency, the winning of “hearts and minds,” and talk of the beneficence of military humanitarianism is linked to realpolitik discussions of the ways that contemporary global nation-states have to respond to non-traditional threats that can come from groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, cyberterrorists, or others who use what are called “asymmetrical” means for fighting wars. Instead of massing together armies that follow the Geneva conventions, these new threats to neoliberal states are said to come from those who hide in mountains or deserts as they as become a “breeding ground for the full range of criminal activities, creating an environment where sanctuaries for terrorist organizations can develop and mature” (Stavridis, 2010, p. 172).

In theory, if the Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters are going to use network-centric warfare as they mingle with indigenous populations, then the Americans and the Coalition members who use military humanitarian arguments must be able to demonstrate their willingness to help alter the cultures of those who live in allegedly oppressive societies. Fluri (2014) provides the example of the cover of a publication called Perspectives: Humanitarian and International Affairs (2012) that features a drawing of a female soldiering wearing a UN peacekeeper helmet and sunglasses that reflect the image of several veiled women who appear to be standing in line to receive aid provisions. The cover title reads: “Angels and warriors: female peacekeepers are being called on to protect women trapped in armed conflict” (Fluri, 2014, p. 806). The female soldiers who are put on display in this promotional material are part of the U.S.-led strategic military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Fluri contends that this demonstrates the U.S. military’s “‘operationalization’ of gender in theatres of war” (2014, p. 806). It shows, for example, how local women can profit from international assistance and that this assistance, in turn, is part of the necessary nation-building that can take place when alliances of women help fight the patriarchy of the Taliban or when others promote the social engineering of parts of Afghanistan. Gendered warfare thus becomes one of the many features of this “new” military humanitarianism that rose to prominence after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

As readers might imagine, critics may complain that this makes it look as if the army is turning into some type of social welfare agency or some covert diplomatic corps, but supporters of military humanitarianism respond that all of this just makes good sense from a strategic communication perspective. For those who believe that military interventionism is a moral force for good and that the military provides more than logistics and weaponry, it makes sense that “military humanitarianism” would be an improvement over the traditional usage of such phrases as “armed intervention,” “humanitarian wars,” or “armed humanitarianism.”

Some defenders of military humanitarianism are even willing to go so far as to argue that technological improvements in military science have opened the way for post-human worlds, where drones and other semi-autonomous weapons are used to end wars quickly and, in the process, save lives. A popular argument used by defenders of drone warfare is that it would be immoral or illegal not to use these remotely piloted aircraft if their usage meant that we could “take out” the enemy while avoiding the excessive loss of civilian and military life that would come from massive foreign interventionism. Asad (2015), in Critical Inquiry, responded to these particular permutations of military humanitarian arguments by asking whether the use of these “killer” robots emboldens those who now define life in terms of information flows as they engage in more violent combat.

Interestingly enough, since 2001 many of those who write about the growing interest in medical humanitarianism, celebrity humanitarianism, or military humanitarianism also discuss the resonance of a key phrase in these debates, something called the “responsibility to protect” (R2P).

The Responsibility to Protect

As noted in this article, many different generations have been torn between policies of “non-interventionism” and all sorts of rationales for interventionism. The 1990s was a period that witnessed several large-scale massacres in places like Srebrenica in Europe and the genocidal attacks on the Tutsis in Rwanda, and more than few international observers wondered whether talk of national sovereignty, casualty aversion, and naked national self-interest was standing in the way of international peacekeeping efforts. In 2000 a major initiative began to try to remedy this perceived problem, and with the backing of the United Nations a panel, called the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, produced a 2001 report entitled “The Responsibility to Protect.” Four years later, at its World Summit the United Nations adopted R2P as its new guiding principle for determining how to balance human rights interests with sovereignty needs, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan adopted his own response to contemporary non-intervention. “It cannot be right,” Annan declared, “when the international community is faced with genocide or mass human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let” these events unfold to the end (Homans, 2011, para. 16).

While some thought that all of this was old wine in new bottles—the International Red Cross had been talking about the need to prevent large scale-massacres during the 1860s—others were convinced that this “new” orientation was a turning point for 21st-century humanitarianism. In 2008 the French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, tried to argue (unsuccessfully) that the world had a “responsibility to protect” the people of Burma after Cyclone Nargis hit that country, but three years later R2P rationales resurfaced to justify the NATO bombings of Gaddafi in Libya. Using language that sounded eerily like some of John Stuart Mill’s imperialist rationales, Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, said that the intervention was “just right.” Cohen elaborated by arguing that the “best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th” involved the promotion of the “idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism” (2011, paragraph 16). Not surprisingly, the title of Cohen’s essay, “Score One for Interventionism,” was alluding to the existence of some taken-for-granted universalist principles that would dictate when the sovereign borders of other nations had to be crossed in the name of humanity.

If we considered R2P principles in some abstract vacuum, they might sound unobjectionable, and they would get the warranted assent of many national and international audiences, but we need to remember that these principles can be interpreted in diverse ways and applied in a variety of contexts. As Rieff (2008) explained, when today’s political decision-makers, aid workers, or human rights experts or activists think about human rights, they sometimes make the mistake of not taking into account the possibility that class issues have influenced some of the diverse legacies that we have been bequeathed by previous generations. Unlike some of the other writers who use more formalistic, aspirational ways of talking about human rights in general, Rieff (2008, p. 40) invites us to study what he calls the “social matrices” that inform the ways that human relief workers and others think about human rights discourse. While he does not mention the older, restrictive Roman notion of humanitas discussed earlier in the article, he does get at the idea of competing expansive and restrictive ways of thinking about conferring rights when he claims that, in Europe, one’s social status and party affiliation can impact one’s way of thinking about two different frameworks—what he calls the “humanitarian project” movement and the “human rights” project. Rieff (2008) proceeds to explain what the broader movement, the “human rights” movement, looks like:

[T]he Human Rights project is a fairly typical Western progress narrative. Its master idea is that slowly but surely, with great difficult and with many setbacks and defeats, humanity is making its way toward a world where different and more human legal and political norms will prevail. One way of describing this is to claim that over the past half-century what … Michael Ignatieff has dubbed a “revolution of moral concern” has taken place … as illustrated by the recent discussion about whether the doctrine of a “Responsibility to Protect” obliged states to intervene in Burma when the dictatorship there failed to respond adequately to the effects of Cyclone Nargis.

(Rieff, 2008, p. 42)

Rieff (2008, p. 42) characterizes the “human rights” project as a “utopian” one, unlike the “humanitarian action” paradigm that appeared to be more compromising, more realistic, and more adaptive to perceived needs. In order to help flesh out the differences between these two models Rieff uses medical analogies to talk about how one group of human rights advocates would want to try, over the “long run,” to “cure most if not all diseases,” while the public health model of those interested in the “humanitarian project” would use more “triage” type models that would recognize that sometimes physicians can only alleviate some pain and suffering (2008, p. 42).

Obviously what Rieff is trying to get us to see are the competing ways that we can operationalize humanitarian discourse, and during the next decade readers should not be surprised to see many interventions—against Syria, ISIS, etc.—being justified in the name of R2P.


As Hartnett (2013, p. 286) once noted, talk of humanitarianism involves “questions of geopolitics, international strategy, resource wars, human rights, cultural survival, and the dynamics of globalization,” and this article has provided readers with a brief overview of some of the leading strands of arguments that have gone into the complex tapestry that we call “humanitarian discourses.” By studying some of the historical and contemporary features of medical humanitarianism, military humanitarianism, and celebrity humanitarianism, I have tried to underscore the importance of a few of the strategies that animate the efforts of diverse communities who claim to be humanitarians. In some cases, dating back to at least Roman times, we have reserved the term “humanitas” for a select few, while at other times those who adopted permutations of humanitarian rhetorics went in the opposite direction and wanted to provide human rights to everyone, regardless of their gender, class, ethnicity, or nationality. As Pugliese (2013) has argued, we should not let state governments have any monopoly on violence when they use that state violence to take away basic human rights that are legitimated and structured by key legal institutions, military apparatuses, corporations, 21st-century technologies, or what he called “carceral architectures.” Pugliese’s own studies of drones, CIA black sites, and the prisoners at Guantánamo invite us to think of the multifaceted nature of humanitarian discourse, which can be simultaneously used by both guards and the prisoners in their care. The guards and their superiors argue that they are protecting the defensive “security” rights of those living in the homeland, while the lawyers for the prisoners talk about the loss of human rights for those who are tortured or abused in the name of biosecurity.

All of the examples in this article remind us that there is no shortage of clarion calls for substantive change in the name of humanity, so it is up to scholars and others to study the material as well as symbolic conditions that become a part of these varied usages. If we truly want to live in a 21st century that will witness fewer genocides and disasters than occurred in the 20th century, then it behooves us to be familiar with the protean and strategic nature of all of these different types of humanitarian discourse.


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(1.) Hauser (2012) explains that by “vernacular rhetoric” he means the “language of the people,” as “distinct from the language of the professionals or special body of knowledge” (p. xiii). When I use the term “elites” in my analysis of humanitarian discourses I am referencing the specialized vocabularies that might be used by lawyers, specialists in international relations, bioethics, military studies, etc. Hauser (2012) then goes on to explain that vernacular commentaries on human rights can have their own rhetorical filters and biases: “One does not require a formal education to acquire it [vernacular]; it requires that a person be conversant in the things that matter locally. It also is a language that involves power vectors—those that exclude it from important forums where learned language is the norm, such as the court or the lecture hall, and its own exclusion of outsiders who are tone deaf to subtleties of class, race, sexual orientation, and gender that circulate within its use” (p. xiii).

Writing in a similar vein, Shome (2014, p. 3) explains the heuristic value of her postcolonial approach to social justice when she writes about how we need intersectional approaches that allow us to see how national identity, class privilege, ethnicity, and neoliberal ideas are all linked together in what she calls logics of “selfhood” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.