How to Defend a Common Humanity?

By Khaled Mansour*

Fifteen years ago, I survived the attack against the UN headquarters in Iraq, but the explosion killed 22 of my colleagues, also demolished a barrier that I have had for year. This barrier ostensibly helped me cope with the scenes of abject poverty and degradation; violent deaths and inexplicable violence; and the looming menace which I had to live close to for years.

For months, I stood at the brink of an abyss of dark and bloody memories. Scenes came flooding: a flattened refugee camp in Jenin, small tombs of dead malnourished children in Hirat, stories of torture inflicted on political prisoners or suspects from Syria to Pakistan, etc.

I no longer try to forget these scenes. The barrier between me and even harsher and more frequent atrocities in areas of conflict is gone. And for that I am grateful. Like many people who engage in humanitarian aid and defense of human rights in situations of conflict, I have to grapple with occasional attacks of depression and waves of sadness, but I see them as signs of a shared humanity and a healthy vulnerability.

They are also a call for resistance through writing, teaching, volunteering and – most important working with others to defend the dignity and rights of people in conflict. It is a call for action to build and rebuild what our common humanity means and how we can work together to protect it.

There is a dominant sense among critics of the humanitarian aid system that the old has disintegrated while the new is not yet born, as Gramsci said almost a century ago.

There is also a shocking indifference in global and regional centers of power as to the fate of hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are decimated in conflicts. Over the past few years, millions have been killed, maimed or forced to flee their homes because of such horrific violence. Civilians are suffering in what has become normalized military operations in Syria, Yemen, Gaza strip and many other places. The Assad forces have used indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemical weapons against civilians, while the Israeli and the Saudi forces simply disregard the concept of military advantage as they bomb densely populated areas or vital infrastructure installations killing and harming far more civilians than members of the Houthi or Hamas militias. Armed non-state actors, ISIS for example, have also committed their share of spectacular atrocities.

Compliance with the laws of war and holding violators to account are becoming increasingly difficult tasks. The refugee law is not faring much better. The EU deterrence measures against possible refugees are an abomination that resulted in thousands of people – seeking asylum – drowning at sea.

This is fueling cynicism among aid workers as well as recipients. Aid agencies are reportedly jockeying for a bigger slice of the USD930 million promised by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the gigantic aid operation in Yemen. These two countries have led a merciless war against Yemeni Houthi militias killing as 20,000 civilians. Starvation and blocking essential humanitarian supplies as a war tactic has been regularly used in Syria since 2012, predominantly by the regime, while aid agencies simply acquiesced as the authorities rejected one request after another to access besieged areas. And now, we face the criminalization of both asylum seekers and those who help them in western countries.

These are disturbing trends.

What is more disturbing is how human empathy is eroding. With an unprecedented rise in populism, rights (legal and otherwise) are increasingly limited to citizens and then even not to all of them. Within societies from the US to India, more demagogue chauvinists advocate that all humans were not equal and that not all cultures can peacefully co-exist. They are not the majority yet, but their influence is mushrooming.

There is a glaring absence of political will at the state and intrastate levels. The cosmopolitan values that are at the root of much of the humanitarian and human rights movements seem to be in retreat. This absence of political will was very evident in the ICRC’s failure to introduce a new mechanism for compliance with the Geneva conventions in 2015, or in the miniscule outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, or the failure of the Refugee Summit in New York after two years of work to produce any real change to the grim reality.

So, to quote another Marxist, who was maybe luckier than Gramsci, what is to be done?

There is a large body of literature and policy studies that deconstruct the current aid system. There is a ton of policy papers and many think tanks which have ideas to reform/fix or change the humanitarian enterprise.

But what seems to be missing is sustained popular pressure to force a genuine change or quicken the pace of reform. There is a clear need for a movement of people to struggle alongside those who are affected in conflicts in order to ensure their rights to protection and basic needs.

This is why a group of former and current aid workers, researchers, and activists have come together last year and started working to build such a global movement to produce action-oriented knowledge, engage in policy advocacy and, most important, organize and play an active political role against atrocities and the rising inhumanity in conflicts around the world.

United Against InHumanity is still emerging propelled by the outcome of extensive consultations with diverse groups and potential stakeholders in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and Europe since late 2017 to turn a common feeling of indignation into a a repertoire of impactful actions.

The overall purpose of UAI is to initiate and facilitate joint action by civil society at global, regional and national levels to challenge warring parties, their sponsors, governments and relevant international organisations in order to reverse the normalization of indiscriminate warfare and the erosion of the right to asylum.

This is a tall order! But it is probably our only way to effectively stand against unbridled and murderous acts of inhumanity in conflicts instead of building barriers that we falsely think could save us.

*Khaled Mansour is a member of the emerging movement United against Inhumanity. He is a senior fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative. For the past 30 years, he has been a writer in addition to working in aid, peacekeeping and human rights organizations around the world. This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the opening session of IHSA 18th conference.