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Published by Atilio Barreda

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Published by: Atilio Barreda on Dec 24, 2011
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Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life
Didier Fassin
Finally, this idea o man’s sacredness gives grounds or refection that what is here pronounced sacred was, accordingto ancient mythical thought, the marked bearer o guilt: lieitsel.
— Walter Benjamin, “Critique o Violence”
n March 28, 2003, as on the last Friday o every month,the board o administrators o Médecins sans rontières (MSF; Doctors withoutBorders) met between ve and eleven o’clock in the organization’s head oceon the rst foor o a building in the eleventh arrondissement o Paris.
On thatparticular evening a peculiar atmosphere o expectation and excitement reigned.There was o course the customary rapid overview o the situation in a number o “missions” in various parts o the world where the organization intervenes, ol-lowed by a more in-depth examination, with discussion o various specic topicsconcerning the running o the association and its humanitarian activities. Theconstruction o the “international movement” was also raised: it reerred to thenetwork o sections in twenty countries, o which six are actually in a position toconduct operations, and which strives to ensure a coherence o identity and policyin the work o each national body beyond the details o local history and culture.The DNDi (Drugs or Neglected Diseases Initiative) program was another issueaddressed: this is an original project that the organization had instigated two yearsearlier in order to establish, in international collaboration with private charitableoundations and public partners, a program o research and development similar
Public Culture
10.1215/08992363-2007-007Copyright 2007 by Duke University Press
Public Culture
to that o the pharmaceutical industry but dedicated to treatments deemed unpro-itable because o the poverty o the Third World patients who need them.The meeting o the board o administrators is open to the public. All memberso the association have the right to participate, as do the employees who carry outthe organization’s bureaucratic and technical unctions. In general, attendancegradually thins out as the evening wears on. But that evening many stayed, wait-ing or the last item on the agenda. The subject was the state o operations in Iraq.Eight days earlier, American and British troops had begun their bombardment o the country, ending the long run-up to a war that had been declared in a climateo growing international tension and division. MSF has a complex history withthe Iraqi state, having reused to intervene during the period o the embargo soas not to succumb to what it considered to be the manipulation o internationalhumanitarian sentiment by the criminal Baathist regime: bringing aid to the Iraqipopulation would have meant comorting Saddam Hussein’s power. Nevertheless,the organization had recently changed its position and had started negotiating itspresence with the Iraqi Ministry o Health, as the prospect o war was gettingmore and more obvious: a medical team o six was thereore present in Bagh-dad and, ater long and dicult discussions in its executive committee, MSF haddecided to stay.The debate was now taking place publicly within the board o administrators.Should the medical team remain in Baghdad, given the danger it would ace bothrom the cornered military o the Iraqi regime and rom the predictable rain o American bombs, on the one hand, and given the likely limited ecacy o itspresence, since the team was so small compared with the extensive health-careacilities and proessionals available in Baghdad, on the other hand? Should thelives o aid workers be risked to save other lives among local populations? Thediscussion that arose around the presence o these members in Iraq was by allaccounts the most intense debate the association has seen in the past ew years.However, it avoided the most painul truth — the radical inequality that underliesthis transaction in human lives.I take this scene as a starting point or raising the question o humanitarianaction as it constitutes one o the paradigmatic orms o a politics o lie, by intro-ducing this dialectic between lives to be saved and lives to be risked. What I call“politics o lie” here are politics that give specic value and meaning to humanlie. They dier analytically rom Foucauldian biopolitics, dened as “the regula-tion o population,” in that they relate not to the technologies o power and the waypopulations are governed but to the evaluation o human beings and the meaning
Humanitarianism as aPolitics of Life
o their existence.
Humanitarian intervention is a biopolitics insoar as it setsup and manages reugee camps, establishes protected corridors in order to gainaccess to war casualties, develops statistical tools to measure malnutrition, andmakes use o communication media to bear witness to injustice in the world. Buthumanitarian intervention is also a politics o lie, as I suggest to phrase it, in thatit takes as its object the saving o individuals, which presupposes not only riskingothers but also making a selection o which existences it is possible or legitimateto save (e.g., by selecting AIDS patients to be given antiretroviral drugs or lack o resources, or deciding whether to provide assistance to people who have par-ticipated in massacres). And humanitarian intervention is also a politics o lie inthat it takes as its object the deense o causes, which presupposes not only leavingother causes aside but also producing public representations o the human beingsto be deended (e.g., by showing them as victims rather than combatants and bydisplaying their condition in terms o suering rather than the geopolitical situa-tion). What sort o lie is implicitly or explicitly taken into account in the politicalwork o humanitarian intervention? This is the question that interests me.In the rst part, I dierentiate lives to be saved and lives to be risked as a un-damental distinction between the mere physical and the undamentally politicaldimensions o lie, that based on the possibility o the subject to decide about it.This is what underlies the debate in MSF on whether or not to stay in Baghdad. Inthe second part, I discuss saving and risking the lives o others as a basic opposi-tion between humanitarian and military politics o intervention in a supposedlyclear separation o victims and enemies. This is what is meant by MSF teammembers who expose their own lives and the soldiers who expose the civil popu-lations’ lives. In the third part, I blur these lines by introducing a series o con-crete situations unveiling more complex realities o the politics o lie, revealingthe aporia o risk taking, discriminating expatriates and nationals, and displacinglines rom biological to biographical existences. This is what is implied by thenal ailure o MSF’s mission in Baghdad with the abduction o its members andthe departure rom Iraq. The three congurations have a common moral back-ground in which the sacred, as Walter Benjamin puts it, resides no longer in man
1. On the distinction between politics o lie and biopolitics, see Didier Fassin, “La biopolitiquen’est pas une politique de la vie” (“Biopolitics Is Not a Politics o Lie”),
Sociologies et sociétés
38(2006): 35 – 48.
For Michel Foucault, biopolitics correspond to the technologies dening, studying,counting, controlling, and, more generally, “normalizing” populations. See Michel Foucault,
The History o Sexuality: An Introduction
(New York: Vintage Books, 1990).

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