By Peace Science Digest, June 24, 2022
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: McCormack, K., & Gilbert, E. (2022). The geopolitics of militarism and humanitarianism. Progress in Human Geography, 46(1), 179–197. https://doi.org/10.1177/03091325211032267
- Militarism and humanitarianism, in particular Western humanitarianism, produce and justify political violence in different sites and at different scales that go beyond established conflict zones or battlefields.
- “Humanitarian initiatives frequently coexist with, and sometimes buttress, traditional military force,” and thereby broaden the geographies of war by extending into “local and domestic spaces that are typically beyond military reach in conflict.”
- Militarism and humanitarianism act in tandem in areas such as “war and peace; reconstruction and development; inclusion and exclusion; [and] injury and protection”
Key insight for Informing Practice
- The reimagination of peacebuilding and humanitarianism must entail dismantling the racism-militarism paradigm, otherwise these efforts will not only fall short of their long-term transformative objectives but actively sustain a destructive system. The path forward is a decolonized, feminist, anti-racist peace agenda.
Humanitarian crises and violent conflicts take place in an interlinked, multidimensional context. Humanitarian actors are traditionally tasked with providing logistic and material aid to people who need help. Those actions to save lives and reduce suffering in response to crises take place within the humanitarian imperative of neutrality. Killian McCormack and Emily Gilbert challenge the idea that humanitarianism is a neutral endeavor and instead aim to reveal the “violent geographies produced through militarized humanitarianism.” By adding the geographical lens, the authors show how militarism and humanitarianism, in particular Western humanitarianism, produce and justify political violence in different sites and at different scales that go beyond established conflict zones or battlefields.
Humanitarianism is “centred around a presumed universal humanity, rooted in a collection of practices of aid and care that are driven by a neutral desire to ‘do good’ and an apolitical compassion for the suffering of others.”
Militarism is “not just about the military, but the normalization and routinization of conflict and war within society, in ways that encroach upon political systems, get taken up in values and moral attachments and extend into what are otherwise usually considered to be civilian domains.”
To draw out the spatial dynamics of the intersection of humanitarianism and militarism in this theoretical article, the authors pursue five lines of enquiry. First, they examine how humanitarianism regulates war and conflict. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), for example, appears to limit the effects of war based on universal moral reasoning that requires the protection of non-combatants. In reality, however, unequal global power relations determine “who can be saved and who can save.” IHL also presumes that principles of “proportionality” with regard to how war is waged or “distinction” between civilians and combatants make war more humanitarian, when in fact these legitimize specific deaths in specific places based on colonial and capitalist relations of power. Humanitarian practices then produce new forms of violence by turning social and political issues related to spaces such as borders, prisons, or refugee camps into security issues.
Second, the authors examine how military interventions are rationalized as humanitarian wars. Articulated in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, military interventions are justified to protect civilian populations from their own government. Military interventions and wars in the name of humanity are Western constructs based on the assumed moral and political authority of the West over non-Western nations (especially Muslim-majority countries). Humanitarian military interventions are an oxymoron in that civilians are killed under the guise of defending life. The geographies of violence are broadened to gender relations (e.g., the notion of freeing women from Taliban rule in Afghanistan) or humanitarian aid dependency resulting from war-caused humanitarian crises (e.g., the siege in Gaza).
Third, the authors discuss how military forces are used to address humanitarian crises and thereby turn spaces of humanitarian action into spaces of security. Military forces often provide logistical support for different types of crises (e.g., outbreaks of diseases, displacement of peoples, environmental catastrophes), sometimes pre-emptively, resulting in a securitization of the aid industry (see also Peace Science Digest article Private and Military Security Companies Undermine Peacebuilding Efforts) and migration routes. The Western colonial nature of control and exclusion is notable when it comes to the “protection” of migrants and refugees who “are both the subjects to be saved, and those who are prevented from travelling.”
Fourth, in their discussion of humanitarian practices adopted by the military, the authors show how imperial military projects were tied to areas such as medical interventions, infrastructure projects, the promotion of Western economic development, and the greening of the military. This was notable in the cycles of destruction and development in places like Palestine, Afghanistan Guatemala, and Iraq. In all cases, “humanitarian initiatives frequently coexist with, and sometimes buttress, traditional military force,” and thereby broaden the geographies of war by extending into “local and domestic spaces that are typically beyond military reach in conflict.”
Fifth, the authors illustrate the connection between humanitarianism and weapons development. The means of war are inherently tied to humanitarian discourse. Some weapons technologies such as drones are considered more humane. Killing by drone strikes—a mainly Western practice—is deemed humane and “surgical,” whereas the use of machetes is considered inhumane and “barbaric.” Likewise, non-lethal weapons have been developed under the guise of humanitarianism. These weapons use technological innovation and humanitarian discourse to broaden the geographies of violence in domestic and international affairs (e.g., the use of tasers or tear gas by police and private security forces).
This paper shows the entanglement of Western humanitarianism and militarism through the lenses of space and scale. Militarism and humanitarianism act in tandem in areas such as “war and peace; reconstruction and development; inclusion and exclusion; [and] injury and protection”
This article concludes that the humanitarian-militarism nexus is “in no small part responsible for war’s durability across time and space, as both ‘permanent’ and ‘everywhere’.” Pervasive militarism is recognized by peacebuilding organizations, peace and security funders, civil society organizations, and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). The lesser-known landscape, however, entails how these actors deal with their own roles as part of a Western-informed humanitarian and peacebuilding agenda that often relies on structural white privilege and advances neocolonialism. Given the context of unequal global power relations, the humanitarian-militarism nexus is perhaps the inconvenient truth that cannot be addressed without probing some core assumptions.
Structural white privilege: “A system of white domination that creates and maintains belief systems that make current racial advantages and disadvantages seem normal. The system includes powerful incentives for maintaining white privilege and its consequences, and powerful negative consequences for trying to interrupt white privilege or reduce its consequences in meaningful ways. The system includes internal and external manifestations at the individual, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels.”
Peace and Security Funders Group (2022). Learning Series “Decolonizing Peace and Security Philanthropy” [handout].
Neocolonialism: “The practice of using economics, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a country instead of the previous colonial methods of direct military control or indirect political control.
Neocolonialism. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://dbpedia.org/page/Neocolonialism
How do we acknowledge and examine the geographies of violence produced by militarism as fundamental to the necessity of humanitarian and peacebuilding work? How do we engage in humanitarian and peacebuilding work without allowing militarism to determine the parameters of engagement and success?
In a collaborative effort, Peace Direct and partners have taken on some of these key questions in their outstanding reports, Time to Decolonize Aid and Race, Power and Peacebuilding. The former found “systemic racism across the wider humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors,” while the latter encourages “the peacebuilding sector to embrace the decolonising agenda and address unequal global-local power dynamics.” The reports strongly suggest addressing the unequal power dynamics between Global North and Global South actors in the context of peacebuilding and aid. The specific recommendations for the peacebuilding sector are summarized in the following table:
Key recommendations for peacebuilding actors in Race, Power, and Peacebuilding report
|Worldviews, norms and values||Knowledge and attitudes||Practice|
The excellent recommendations, which are transformative, can be even more strongly implemented if peacebuilders, donors, INGOs, etc., take the broadened geographies of war discussed in this article to heart. Militarism and racism, and in the case of the United States “a long history of imperial expansion, structural racism, and economic and military domination” (Booker & Ohlbaum, 2021, p. 3) must be viewed as a larger paradigm. The reimagination of peacebuilding and humanitarianism must entail dismantling the racism-militarism paradigm, otherwise these efforts will not only fall short of their long-term transformative objectives but actively sustain a destructive system. The path forward is a decolonized, feminist, anti-racist peace agenda (see, for example, A Vision for a Feminist Peace or Dismantling Racism and Militarism in U.S. Foreign Policy). [PH]
- Are the peacebuilding and humanitarian sectors able to transform themselves along decolonized, feminist, and anti-racist trajectories, or is the entanglement between militarism and humanitarianism an insurmountable obstacle?
Center for International Policy and Friends Committee on National Legislation. (2021). Dismantling racism and militarism in U.S. foreign policy. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.fcnl.org/dismantling-racism-and-militarism-us-foreign-policy
Ohlbaum, D. (2022). Dismantling racism and militarism in U.S. foreign policy. Discussion fuide. Friends Committee on National Legislation. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.fcnl.org/sites/default/files/2022-05/DRM.DiscussionGuide.10.pdf
Paige, S. (2021). Time to decolonise aid. Peace Direct, Adeso, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.peacedirect.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/PD-Decolonising-Aid_Second-Edition.pdf
Peace Direct, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), and United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY). (2022). Race, power, and peacebuilding. Insights and lessons from a global consultation. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from https://www.peacedirect.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Race-Power-and-Peacebuilding-report.v5.pdf
White, T., White, A., Gueye, G. B., Moges, D., & Gueye, E. (2022). Decolonizing international development [Policy Papers by Women of Color, 7th Edition]. Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. Retrieved June 18, 2022, from
Key Words: demilitarizing security, militarism, racism, war, peace
Photo credit: Marbury Brown