On Oct. 25, nine French citizens, seven Spaniards and a Belgian were arrested after the French charity Zoe’s Arc tried to airlift 103 children out of eastern Chad, near the border with Sudan, claiming they were orphans from Darfur. The children were going to be delivered to host families in France. Eleven of the detainees have since been freed, in part thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but the rest face kidnapping charges in Chad. The case has raised moral and legal questions regarding the right of humanitarian interference by outsiders in a sovereign nation.
Europeans disgusted by the actions of Zoe’s Arc need to look more carefully at the moral implications of what they are pressing their governments to do—i.e., ban all humanitarian efforts not sanctioned by the authorities of the country where the problem resides—if they don’t want to become imperialists of sorts themselves by denying African kids in danger of death a chance to survive.
Like many of those that cry out for action by the capable powers that be to “do something” about humanitarian crises, I too adhere to a kind of natural law above and beyond pure positive law and legal formalisms. However, understand that any action taken by those “powers that be” – i.e. wealthy western governments and their proxies – is rife with implications, explicit or implicit, for extension of imperial rule and state sovereignty for those same powers, not to mention death to innocents from superior organized violence from abroad (as in Kosovo). Not only are the armies employed abroad for humanitarian relief trained to kill (or “keep the peace” by any means necessary), but realpolitik demands that they will eventually take sides, and the protracted nature of conflicts involving new, especially foreign soldiers practically guarantees what is known as “mission creep“.
And what of the idea that interventionists should not pick sides? Though this notion is pleasing and vital to the theory of humanitarian relief free of any imperial designs – uncorrupted interest in saving lives only – one could make the case that by favoring no side, save for the innocent bystanders, imperialism is even more free to plant itself. Any scintilla of recognition and legitimation of leaders, “big men” and potential rivals to western governments (or coalition thereof) is effectively squashed.