When to intervene?

Published online April 24, 2012.

In our interconnected global community how does identity influence one’s actions?

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This famous quotation comes from public lectures given by protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, a critic of Adolf Hitler who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years. Like many others, he expressed lifelong regret at having failed to act sooner as the Nazis murdered millions. His faith differed from most of those who were persecuted, but the painful lesson he learned was that one’s identity should not dictate one’s actions, or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, this lesson remains relevant today.

Still, questions remain. When do you have a responsibility to help someone? When are other people’s problems also your problems? In the face of obvious wrongdoing or a natural disaster, is it always better to do something than nothing? The answers to these questions are not obvious, even if Niemöller’s words ring true. Injustices, atrocities and accidents occur daily, but as an increasingly interconnected global community, we have not figured out when and how we are supposed to act, either as individuals, organizations, or governments. Many argue that national boundaries should dictate who and what we are responsible for, but upon closer examination, this argument falls apart.

Nationality is one of the most common social categories we use to define our identity, and for good reason. Our nationality, our citizenship, plays a large role in determining where and how we live. We look toward nation-states to dictate the behavior of individuals and governments, and physical boundaries are also those used to assign rights, privileges and obligations. Furthermore, nationalism is not just a facet of our identity, but is deeply embedded in the international system. The norms and rules of sovereignty have for long prevented one country from wandering willy-nilly into the affairs of another (which is not to say that this happens infrequently).

For this reason, human rights advocates, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations like the International Criminal Court, often viewed as proxies for “western” governments, not to mention governments themselves, are often lambasted for meddling in the affairs of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Governments of countries on the receiving end of intervention complain loudly about the imposition on their sovereignty. Citizens too are repulsed by the idea and actions of foreigners who behave as if they know and understand a place or problem better than the people who live there.

But it is not clear why national boundaries alone should dictate our rights and responsibilities. Physical boundaries are becoming increasingly porous, and arguably, irrelevant. What happens halfway around the world is not only visible, but also something in which individuals far and wide can have a stake. Following the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti, individuals raised hundreds of millions of dollars, channeled not through governments but rather through non-governmental and international organizations.

It is clear that individuals can make a difference, but the question is when should they? It would be silly to suggest that we should only care about things that happen in countries where we hold citizenship. Why? At least in part because the selection of nationalism as the key factor for determining whether or not to act is arbitrary. If we should only care about “people like us” or stay out of “other people’s” affairs, an argument that begins with one’s citizenship as the relevant identity may quickly reduce down to a sub-national identity, or worse, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or class.

It is surely not the case that we should only care about or attempt to redress injustices if the offended party shares our race, ethnicity, hometown or income level. An argument that lists nationality as the key determinant of whether or not we have a right or responsibility to act is no different and no better than one listing any of our other identities as the deciding factor. Each one of us has many different, and largely socially constructed, identities. For example, I am an American, born in the state of California, in a town called Palo Alto, to a Mexican father and an American mother. I was baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church. I have light skin. I am a woman. Should any of these categories, any of these identities, limit who or what I care about? Under what conditions should any of these identities dictate how I act?

If identity (of any variety) should not be the determinant that dictates our rights and responsibilities to act, what should be? We do not have an answer to this question. What we do have is the creation of social categories around which it is easy to mobilize but also easy to persecute, the creation of “us” and “them”, “foreigners” and “locals”. Such a framing is neither productive nor sustainable.

Perhaps information, knowledge, or understanding should be a prerequisite for action. Much of the critique about “meddling” in other people’s affairs stems from the fact that the meddling is often poorly informed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the adage goes. First do no harm, says another popular mantra. Unfortunately, the simplicity of these axioms is misleading. We often do not know whether our actions will, on balance, be more helpful or harmful – it is often impossible to measure one’s impact, even years after the fact.

Yet if we fail to act, we are in danger of becoming bystanders to massive atrocities. Many who looked on as the Rwandan genocide unfolded became exactly that – bystanders whose crimes were those of omission. So too were those who looked away as the Nazis summarily wiped out over six million people. More recently, we have faced crises in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond, as regimes have clobbered and battered their populations into submission. Rebel groups like the LRA continue to terrorize with abandon. The fundamental questions remain. Should we act? When? How?

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