This text is a reading, done from the point of view of political philosophy, of the theories and practices of 'witnessing' and 'testimony' in the field of humanitarian action and emergency. It was first presented as 'The Advent of the Emergency, Political Theory and Humanitarian Expertise' at the conference on 'Zones of Emergency' at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, June 2007.
To Carl Schmitt and to Giorgio Agamben we owe the observation that the emergency comes after the law. Nothing is more foreign to the emergency than an anarchic state of nature in which violence exercises a free reign: what is peculiar to the emergency in Schmitt's and Agamben's formulation is the ambiguous, yet steady, relation between violence and law, its domestication of the former through the suspension of the latter, its inherent undecidability between fact and norm and its consequent implication of life in the legal order of things (Schmitt 2005; Agamben 2005). Whereas an institution equivalent to the state of emergency, the Justitium, already existed in Roman law, what makes the state of emergency a permanent and defining feature of our political present for Agamben is its expansion and routinization as a technique of government in the era that stretches from the First World War to the global war on terror. When the emergency becomes an ordinary instrument of rule, both law and life are exposed to the caprices of security, parliamentary democracy becomes a dead letter and "the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine"(Agamben 2005: 86). If one follows Agamben's account to its conclusion, however, the contemporariness of the state of emergency acquires another, more nuanced, sense that stems from, but is not reducible to, its current pervasiveness as a technical-governmental device employed in a broad gamut of political scenarios. Standing for the demise of liberal democracy and its rational, universal, transparent, and self-sufficient nomos, the normalization of the state of emergency encapsulates the ontological difference that separates the present from a political reason that has become defunct (cf. Foucault 1984). The prison and the camp seem to be the most vivid manifestations of these two incommensurable regimes and of the historical shift whose reverberations are felt in the present. Whereas the reform prison of the 18th century materialized the rational legal code in stone and regulations, and established discipline as the continuation of law by other means, the camp is the paradigmatic space of an anomic political power that separates and re-entangles law and life repeatedly and as a matter of course (cf. Agamben 1998: 20).
Agamben's juridico-political rendering of the emergency qua exception as the cipher of the political present, captures, however, only half of the picture. To the normalization of the state of emergency and to its regular deployment by democratic governments corresponds another configuration of the emergency that gained currency in the last third of the 20th century and is intimately related to the political present in yet another fashion. Reducible to none of the entrenched forms of political or social crisis with which it is nevertheless associated – war, natural disaster, famine, genocide or epidemics - the emergency functions as a principal category of humanitarian discourse and action, where it designates a specialized theatre of operations and acts as a unifying standard and as a privileged justificatory device. Just like its juridico-political homologue, humanitarian emergency is a widely employed and inherently general concept, capable of accommodating a wide range of scenarios and somewhat set apart from the social and political events that have brought it about. A recent survey of operational definitions of emergencies conducted by the World Food Programme demonstrates that while the emergency is widely portrayed as an exceptional event that requires extraordinary measures, many definitions "typically use subjective terms" and "acknowledge the role of judgment based on situation-specific factors in deciding whether a situation qualifies as an emergency or not" (World Food Programme 2005). Moreover, agencies and donors usually consider that "many emergencies evolve from a process or series of events" and therefore "their time-frame, both start and finish is fluid" (ibid). Humanitarian emergency may point to both actual and potential dangers, and does not coincide with the quantifiable and bio-medically defined "emergency phase" which is determined by the Crude Mortality Rate indicator (the threshold of the emergency phase is crossed when mortality exceeds 1 death per 10,000 people per day) (Médecins sans Frontières 1997a: 38). Contrary to its image and to the medical connotations that it carries, the existence of a humanitarian emergency is not self-evident but rather presupposes the exercise of judgment and discretion.
As a concept that alludes to a delimited sphere of humanitarian action and is superposed on other, thematic classifications of political and social crises, the emergency is a relatively recent addition to humanitarian parlance and it is rare to find allusions to it before the 1970s, when it first made its appearance in professional guidelines (De Ville de Goyet et al. 1978; UNHCR 1982; cf. de Waal 1997: 69). Earlier technical literature usually referred to "disaster relief" to indicate urgent humanitarian interventions as opposed to long-term development projects, and encompassed in this notion occurrences of both natural disasters and man-made ones. Thus, in annotated bibliographies on "international relief" and "disaster technology" that date from 1944 and 1976 respectively, and provide a comprehensive survey of the major publications available up to that time, few mentions are made of the emergency (Kraus 1944; Manning 1976).
The advent of humanitarian emergency has much to do with the fact that, similar to the juridico-political emergency, humanitarian emergency does not designate an objective event having clear-cut margins or a distinct form of social suffering as much as it connotes a structural relation of a special kind. Over and above a cluster of imminent dangers and bare lives that brings about an exceptional temporality, the emergency entails an agent who is responsive to both its moral calling and its practical demands. An emergency only exists for a third party who is able, at least potentially, to do something about it (cf. Rufin 1986: 63). The emergency does not have an objectively independent existence, but is declared and recognized as such either by a political sovereign or by authoritative experts who specialize in emergency interventions. As we shall see, if in its juridico-political rendering the emergency constitutes a relation between violence and law, the underlying feature of a humanitarian emergency is the relation between mass suffering and a witness. This constitutive relationality distinguishes the emergency from the catastrophe, both in its eschatological sense as a manifestation of pure violence (Agamben 2005: 56) and in its moral-epistemological sense of an event without a witness, a kind of "black hole" that nobody can attest to (Felman & Laub 1992). Humanitarian and juridico-political emergencies alike are, therefore, intrinsically governable realities where violence is domesticated and kept under check.
This conceptual homology between juridico-political and humanitarian configurations of the emergency reveals a critical difference between them, which is often occluded by their actual proximity, if not confluence, in practice. The legal vacuum created by the declaration of a state of emergency often provokes the avalanche of evils that characterizes humanitarian emergencies, and is often invoked in order to manage and contain humanitarian crises. More significantly, as Agamben has argued convincingly, both the humanitarian and the juridico-political devices of the state of emergency share a bio-political logic that maintains a separation between politics and bare life while turning bare life into the privileged object of politics (Agamben 1998: 133). While the humanitarian and the juridico-political formulations of the emergency may constitute two aspects of one and the same event and exhibit "a secret solidarity", the humanitarian formulation of the emergency qua urgency nonetheless maintains a constitutive relation to an ethical witness, which distinguishes it, as I will show, both from the juridico-political emergency in its relation to the law, and from the medical emergency in its immediate and pressing focus on bare life.
In what follows, I wish to bring humanitarian emergency back into the political analysis of zones of emergency. I shall argue that the emergency is not only a complex entanglement of violence and law but also a zone of indistinction between the ethical and the political, and that its predominance in the political present does not only signal the demise of the liberal-democratic nomos but also reflects the advent of the witness, whose "era" should be considered in a much broader light than Holocaust scholars maintain (Felman & Laub 1992; Wieviorka 2002). My empirical focus will be on the French medical humanitarian movement that emerged in the late 1960s and has been one of the most prominent, prolific and articulate sources of the discursive and operational formulation of the emergency. I propose to examine medical humanitarianism and its configuration of the emergency not through the critical lenses of political theory (and of insights advanced most notably by Hannah Arendt and Agamben) but rather as a critical activity in and of itself. I shall argue that contemporary emergencies involve a problematization of the witnessing relation that is constitutive to them, and which has become, along with the desperate need that the emergency provokes, an object of concern and a technical challenge for humanitarian action. Contemporary emergencies are not only scenes of mass political suffering domesticated and rendered governable by their underlying relation to a professional witness, they are also arenas in which witnessing itself becomes complex and problematic. The crisis of witnessing in emergencies has very little to do with a generalized crisis of representation and with the traumatic and unfathomable nature attributed to certain forms of political violence. Ethical rather than epistemological, it is related, on the contrary, to the increasing possibilities of witnessing brought about by the expansion of humanitarian and human rights activity and by the concomitant media coverage of emergencies.
I shall begin by tracing the advent of the humanitarian configuration of the emergency as a specialized sphere of humanitarian intervention and as a general cipher to which various cases of war, inflicted famine, genocide, occupation and persecution translate. I shall discuss the social, political and discursive conjuncture that made the formation of the emergency both possible and enduring, and that may elucidate its superposition over, and difference from, traditional categories such as war or disaster. Next, I shall point to a distinctive feature of global humanitarian governmentality in emergencies. I shall examine how humanitarian governmentality operates in its less expansive and more radicalized forms: when it is tailored to the circumscribed sphere of the emergency and the exceptional crisis and strives to reinforce their differentiation from other spheres of humanitarian intervention. Finally, I shall analyze the conceptualization of the emergency as a complex phenomenon that reveals certain immutable structures in reflexive humanitarian discourse. Thus, I wish to address the general, if not vague, trope of the emergency in its specificity and to show that its advent in contemporary humanitarian discourse is instructive, even revelatory, rather than illusory : that instead of being dismissed as an euphemistic idiom, as a technocratic fetish or simply as a lack of conceptual clarity, the trope of the emergency should be regarded as a key both to the political present and to the heterogeneous field of phenomena that this workshop attempts to define and to circumscribe. My purpose in what follows, then, is not to fix the meaning of humanitarian emergency but rather to explore its significations and ramifications as an inherently ambiguous, unsettled and open-ended discursive formulation.
The zone of emergency
The delimitation of the emergency as a privileged domain of humanitarian intervention if not as its raison d'être operated from the start at the margins of the humanitarian field where it constituted a heterodox paradigm that attempted to challenge the established wisdoms of the aid industry. While it subsequently reverberated across the humanitarian universe, this formulation of the emergency as the focal point of the humanitarian initiative has been mainly fostered by medical humanitarian organizations established in France in the 1970s such as Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, henceforth MSF) and Médecins du Monde. Taking their cue from mediatized crises in Bangladesh and on the Thailand-Cambodia border, from the civil war in Lebanon and from the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, these organizations have set the emergency ["l'urgence"] as both their creed and their specialized field of action. Medical humanitarianism advanced "the morality of extreme urgency"(Kouchner 1987: 9) as a regime of justification whose main thrust was that mass plight supersedes all ideological considerations, topples political, legal and professional borders and makes immediate intervention imperative. Distant crises, according to this formulation, were not the exclusive domain of diplomats, philanthropists or even experts, but the concern of the public at large.
The employment of the emergency as a justificatory device was coupled with an operational delimitation of a practical domain of intervention associated with the emergency, which was not altogether compatible with the moral imaginary that underpinned the "emergency-as-the-suspension-of-politics" credo. This domain emerged out of the conflict between two other domains of humanitarian assistance in which MSF was involved during the early years of its existence and that the new domain of emergency has rapidly overshadowed: development missions in what was referred to as "chronic emergencies", and short-term interventions in war or disaster zones where surgical techniques of emergency medicine were deployed (Médecins sans Frontières 1974; Emmanuelli 1975). As a particular sphere of professionalized humanitarian intervention, then, the emergency was differentiated both from expansive development projects that aimed to transform societies and populations at large, and from specialized medical interventions in what traditionally counted as medical emergencies, that employed emergency medical tools on (usually a mass of) individual bodies.
Rather than to natural disasters, the paradigm of the abrupt and sweeping catastrophe that calls for urgent intervention, medical humanitarianism tailored its original techniques to respond to mass population movements that resulted from war, from famine and sometimes from a combination of both. Unlike the International Committee of the Red Cross (henceforth ICRC), which endeavored to insert itself inter arma and to act, physically and metaphorically, between the lines of fire, medical humanitarianism established its domicile in what Rony Brauman, its president in 1982-1994, has termed "the internal peripheries" of the conflict (in an interview with the author, 2004). Even while organizations in the sans-frontières movement continued to work in the midst of conflict, they turned the refugee camp, which was a direct result of the conflict, yet safely set apart from the battlefield, into the humanitarian space par excellence (cf. Brauman and Tanguy 1998). The humanitarian "zone of emergency" as it took shape in the practice of medical humanitarianism was somewhat removed from the actual war that in most cases instigated it. It was similarly differentiated from the erstwhile disaster zone, as demonstrated by MSF's early avowal that there is little an international humanitarian organization is capable of doing in cases of natural disasters (Médecins sans Frontières, n.d. ). Neither a war nor a disaster properly speaking, the new humanitarian theatre of operations rather embraced a set of observable and universally quantifiable consequences of political events affecting entire populations, and was assigned to a particular site, the refugee camp. The institutionalization of the camp as the main field of humanitarian intervention marked the unfolding of the emergency in space and time: no longer "chronic" nor simply medical, emergency became a synonym of a protracted crisis that was liable to induce life-endangering emergencies in the strict sense. Indeed, the emergency acquired the sense of a demarcated "zone".
The camp was the place where the juridico-political and the humanitarian emergency overlapped in a way that gradually became acknowledged by humanitarian and political actors alike. Unlike other humanitarian initiatives, both the operational logic of medical humanitarianism and its public representation of the crisis in camps have been marked by a duality, or rather an oscillation, between hyper-visible bare life and informed accounts of their political setting. On the one hand, humanitarian intervention, especially during the "emergency phase", adopted a classical bio-political rationality and has been geared to "prevent or reduce excess mortality" (Médecins sans Frontières, 1997a: 9). On the other hand, medical humanitarianism did not shy away from exposing the political roots of the emergency that unfolded in the camp and the political impact of its own services, while insisting that only this acknowledgement guarantees the quality, the efficacy and, moreover, the strictly humanitarian character of its own interventions. Zones of emergencies, and the refugee camp that served as their prototype, were construed, in other words, as composite, politico-humanitarian entities. Furthermore, as I shall show in more detail in what follows, the demarcation of the emergency as a distinct and autonomous sphere of humanitarian action was predicated upon explicit public acknowledgement of its hybrid character (cf. Rufin 1986).
Traditional explanations for the advent of the emergency as a privileged category of humanitarian action usually consider the emergency as either a political phenomenon or as a purely humanitarian one. In the first case, the advent of emergency intervention is perceived as a reaction to a new problem posed by the massive refugee flows of the 1970s and the resurgence of intra-state conflicts. In the second case, it is attributed to the "demise of ideology" and to the distrust of overarching narratives that made bare, pressing, de-politicized and uncontroversial suffering a predominant object of concern. As we shall see in more detail in what follows, however, what distinguishes the zone of emergency from previous arenas of humanitarian action are not only its political landscape and the particular regime of representation that it entails, but more significantly its unique combination of both. Contemporary emergencies are events whose spectacular representation flows into and is incorporated by their political dynamics, while their political landscape is exposed and analyzed in their humanitarian representation. While the advent of the emergency should be attributed to manifold geo-political and cultural shifts whose detailed description exceeds the scope of this article, one particular process stands out as a condition of possibility for this particular mixture of the humanitarian and the political that the emergency entails.
As a category that diverges from traditional humanitarian and political classifications which are either causal or symptomatic, the emergency came into being together with an "expert-witness" who was responsive to both its practical and moral call. In its background stands the expanding, and increasingly autonomous, role that experts came to play in the planning, implementation, management and justification of relief projects in the third world (Lèfevre 1988; de Waal 1997: 70-72). While experts have been involved in aid projects in the past, since the 1970s their technocratic attitude and liberal ethos have come to occupy center ground, dislodging the diplomatic and philanthropic frame of action that predominated in the humanitarian field up till then. As part of this transformation, new modalities of humanitarian government have taken shape alongside the familiar governmental repertoire of bio-political and security devices applied to populations "in danger". Sophisticated instruments and techniques for spatial containment and ordering, control of epidemics and hygiene, and documentation and surveillance of the refugee populations that were inscribed in long-established bio-political rationalities were coupled with an original emphasis on the ethical self-government of the humanitarian aid worker.
The ethics of medical humanitarianism has not only consisted of moral imperatives to assist distant victims: from the outset, it embraced ethical practices that enabled the physicians that came to fill the ranks of the new humanitarian organizations to form themselves as subjects of moral conduct (Foucault 1990: 25-32). The cultivation of the ethical qualities of the physicians followed a double, and often divergent, track. Portrayed as the mirror image of the affluent societies of the West, the emergency brought the physician's persona to the fore. It provided a unique setting where aid workers could "re-become physicians" (Emmanuelli quoted in Decamps 1974) by re-discovering the art of medicine and the authentic proximity to the patients. It also created the conditions for the cultivation and exercise of intuition, quick and independent judgment and other humane virtues associated with the liberal professions (Bernier 1970; Bernier 1972). Going on a mission to zones of emergency was considered, especially in the early days of the sans-Frontières endeavor, a formative experience that would responsibilize the physician and transform his attitude to the exercise of his profession after his return. As one of MSF's directors put it at the time, "physicians that come back from such missions [would] never be quite the same" (Emmanuelli 1975).
Furthermore, medical humanitarianism developed an ethical, moral and political technique that distinguished it both from earlier configurations of humanitarian action and from strictly medical corporatism. Physicians "without borders" were expected to become not only enlightened experts, but also expert-witnesses to the emergency and to its victims. This mode of being involved a broad and incongruous array of practices such as being present beside the victims, listening to their stories, documenting their plight, advocating their cause and speaking out on their behalf (Médecins sans Frontières 1995). Witnessing and testimony [témoignage], which sans-frontières organizations adopted as an integral part of their mission alongside medical assistance, were more than a belated reaction to the silence of ICRC during the Holocaust, as they are usually portrayed in conventional histories of contemporary humanitarianism. They represented a new paradigm of individualist humanitarian action that stressed the freedom and the independence of experts as a precondition for effective intervention. Humanitarian testimony did not consist of first-person narratives and was not meant to express the singularity of the witness. It comprised verbal and non-verbal practices that allowed humanitarian practitioners to fashion themselves as moral subjects, to express concern towards distant others and to act politically in similar ways.
Medical humanitarianism and the emergency that served as its most characteristic field of operations have therefore been privileged sites for the "pursuit of enlightened subjectivity" (Osborne1994a: 43). The emergency provided a strategic solution to critiques and often self-critiques that came from two different quarters. The focus on short and medium-term interventions in political crises was a way to avoid the neo-colonial pitfalls of development projects that constituted the backbone of international philanthropy. Even if it were to last "six months or six years", as Rony Brauman put it in a recent interview (Feher & Mangeot 2006), the emphasis laid upon political crisis provided medical humanitarianism with a self-limiting sphere of action, with "minimalist morals" (Brauman 1996a: 75) and with a restricted mandate that was retrospectively defined as "restoring their capacities of choice" to people whom the crisis temporarily denied such effective capacities (Brauman 1996b). At the same time, the emergency was a means to refurbish the negative (self) image of the expert, and to salvage his ethical persona from the dictates of technology and impersonal standards. As a matter of fact, the suffix "without borders" originally expressed the actualization of the universal mission of the physician by a global enlargement of the scope of her professional concern and only later acquired the meaning of a challenge to political sovereignty. The prominent role played by physicians, the most attacked and probably the most exalted experts of this era, in the constitution of transnational emergency intervention is not only related to the actual need for medical professionals in cases of emergencies, but also to this pursuit of enlightened expertise.
Thus, the birth of the emergency as a predominant site of transnational humanitarian action cannot be attributed only to global economic and geo-political transformations or to disillusionment with left-Marxist ideologies. Moreover, while the mass media spectacle of the emergency and the new communication technologies that underpinned it were crucial to the advent of the emergency as a globalized configuration of moral-political concern, they were neither its unique nor its primary source. Spectacular modes of representation and narration of suffering propagated a sense of moral urgency and created a witnessing public that were essential to the functioning of the emergency in more than one respect. Media coverage of emergencies manufactured the public opinion that was the source of the legitimation of the humanitarian enterprise, but also laid the grounds for the manipulation of humanitarian sensibility and of humanitarian assistance by political actors, which would turn out to be the principle feature of the emergency and the main challenge that it posed to the humanitarian apparatus. A necessary condition of the emergency, media representation of mass suffering was, however, itself interwoven with the new modality of humanitarian intervention, shared its material infrastructure and its expertise and utilized its newly demarcated zone of emergency, the refugee camp, as a showcase of mass suffering.
I with to argue that the emergency is closely related to a more fundamental "mutation of the 'political game' in our [Western] societies" (Osborne 1994b: 532), in which a new form of advanced-liberal governmentality that operates through the autonomous judgment of individuals and reinforces, rather than suppresses, their personal freedom occupies center stage. As Nikolas Rose and Thomas Osborne remind us, advanced liberalism goes beyond the liberal way of governing at a distance, which allotted experts extended powers of surveillance, control and intervention over individuals and populations. It propels both experts and individuals subject to their power to cultivate their autonomy and free choice, to become creative entrepreneurs and to strive for self-realization, in a manner that does not entail a diminution of government, but rather a more efficient and cautious deployment of governmental techniques (Rose 1994; Osborne 1994b). Humanitarian emergency has been the space of formation and the space of appearance of the enlightened expert, and the site where two modes of government and their distinctive techniques intersect: an apparatus of security and bio-power applied to populations, and an ethical cultivation of subjectivity applied to individual experts. By fostering independent and contentious judgment, cultural sensibility and political integrity, humanitarian emergency interventions established the government of the expert-self as a precondition for the experts' government of populations (in the third world) and individuals (in the West). While humanitarian organizations certainly play an important role in the "securitization" of the unruly global peripheries (Duffield 2001) this government of others "presupposes a prior emphasis on the government of the self" (Osborne 1994b: 532).
Medical humanitarianism's cultivation of the emergency as an idiosyncratic domain of action stands in stark opposition to the prevailing tendency of contemporary humanitarianism to merge emergency interventions with broader considerations of development, conflict prevention and conflict resolution (Macrae 2001). Moreover, even medical humanitarian organizations don't live up to their circumscribed emergency mission all the time: an internal report prepared for the international MSF movement in 1998 revealed, for example, that only 54% of the projects carried out by all MSF sections in 1997 were "directly related to crisis" (Piedagnel 1998). But while it cannot represent the general scheme of humanitarian governmentality today, the case of sans-frontières humanitarianism epitomizes the governmental modalities specific to zones of emergency and captures an important aspect of their political originality. Humanitarian governmentality in zones of emergency stands out in its combination of the political with the ethical. For this reason it is far from being a homogenous and harmonious affair and is fraught, at least potentially, with frictions and contradictions between the various governmental rationalities that it embraces. The re-enchantment of humanitarian government does not necessarily make it a radical political initiative: it does, however, bring to the fore the discrepancy between humanitarian governmentality in emergencies and other political and humanitarian modes of government and reveals its close affinity to the rule of experts in its advanced-liberal form. A critical investigation of medical humanitarianism cannot simply regard it as a moral ideology or as an element in the global security apparatus, but should rather contemplate the meaning of its re-configuration as a reflexive and self-limiting humanitarian art.
It is against the backdrop of this composite nature of humanitarian governmentality in emergencies that the meta-humanitarian discourse on zones of emergency should be examined. Since the mid-1980s, a systematic, reflexive and self-critical analysis of humanitarian action, its consequences and its side-effects came to constitute an important part of the sans-frontières humanitarian expertise and of the humanitarian field in general. "Reflection", as it was called in MSF, was posited as a necessary complement to action and as a condition for the quality and efficacy of the humanitarian endeavor (Brauman 1987). Special departments were established, first in MSF and later in Médecins du Monde, to stimulate reflection and to house action-oriented research that was charged, according to the mandate of MSF's Centre de Réflexion sur l’Action et les Savoirs Humanitaires founded in 1995, with examining "crisis situations" and more specifically the "role of humanitarian organizations, their articulation with other actors and the limits, ambiguities and side-effects of their interventions in countries in conflict" (Firino-Martell 1995). While humanitarian reflection was highly articulate and particularly intense in MSF, it was not limited to this particular organization or to the humanitarian circles in France. Linking together humanitarian organizations, think-tanks and academia, and researchers, intellectuals and practitioners across Europe and North America, the web of humanitarian reflection gradually became the prominent arena in which zones of emergency were crystallized as an object of study and discourse.
The age of humanitarian reflection preceded the age of complex emergencies and generated a different understanding of the complexity of the humanitarian arena. Usually considered a particular subtype of the emergency, complex emergencies are defined as "multidimensional humanitarian crises with interlinked political, military and social factors", that "always involve some combination of mass population movement, severe food insecurity, macro-economic collapse, and acute civil and military conflict including genocide" (Bryans 1999: 1). While the scholarly, and usually positivistic, literature on complex emergencies published during the 1990s regarded the emergency itself as a problem whose root causes had to be exposed and that had to be combated at its source (Nafziger et al. 2000), the reflexive knowledge generated by humanitarian organizations concentrated on problems encountered during emergencies which intervention had to take into account and navigate between. For reflexive humanitarianism, the complexity of the emergency did not stem from its multidimensional nature and from the fact that it combined a plethora of predicaments that were themselves attributable to a wide array of political, social and economic factors. What made the emergency so complex was rather its structural way of entangling its supposedly neutral humanitarian witnesses in its evil-producing mechanisms. Humanitarian reflection construed the emergency not so much as a political problem, but first and foremost as a potential catastrophe for the witness.
The informed humanitarian self-questioning inaugurated in the mid-1980s was the logical conclusion of the ethical gesture that lay at the heart of emergency interventions. The problematization of the humanitarian endeavor that it involved flew quite naturally from the freedom and independence "without borders" that humanitarian practitioners asserted, and was associated with their sober recognition that they could not master the effects of their own benevolent intervention. On top of retrospective analysis of shortcomings and deficiencies in particular humanitarian missions, humanitarian reflection was preoccupied with the structural failures of humanitarian action and with the ramifications of its technically successful interventions in emergencies (cf. Rufin 1986: 10). Indeed, it was not the pathologies of humanitarian action (such as the diverting of aid) or its technical failures per se that incited reflection at MSF, but rather the ethical meaning that technical and medical achievements acquired in their interactions with the thick milieu of the emergency. What motivated the reflexive turn was a fundamental suspicion of humanitarianism's own effects when it functioned properly, and the overt recognition that it often tended to aggravate a crisis rather than alleviate its consequences. Criticisms denouncing humanitarian action for facilitating or perpetuating the political evil against which it had set itself are as old as the history of modern humanitarianism. Florence Nightingale, for one, expressed opposition to the initiative of the Red Cross a short time after its foundation on the grounds that voluntary relief would discharge governments of their responsibilities towards soldiers and "would render war more easy [sic]" (quoted in Hutchinson 1996: 40). But only with the current phase of reflexive humanitarian expertise have these critical considerations infiltrated humanitarian rationality itself, been fostered and cultivated as part of the humanitarian field and harnessed to the perfection of its assistance projects.
The reflexive position has maintained that humanitarianism could not go about its naïve and self-satisfied provision of aid but had to adopt an analytic understanding of the arena in which it intervened and identify its underlying pitfalls. In order neither to help too little nor to intervene too much, knowledge of the political mechanisms of the emergency and of the interrelations that underpin it was mandatory. Effective intervention could no longer rely only on technical competence and expertise, as "one could be a very qualified nutritionist, a particularly competent logistician, an efficient NGO, and miss the essential point" of the crisis (Brauman 1996: 42). One had to be able to recognize the circumstances in which humanitarian action perpetuates the emergency and damages the victims; one had to be able to sense when humanitarian action was being instrumentalized by the political actors that make up the emergency and became counter-productive; and finally, one had to be able to decide when to substitute speech (testimony) for action, or, alternatively, when to couple testimony with action so that the negative effects of humanitarian intervention are offset. The culture of self-suspicion and the particular considerations pertaining to planning and implementing effective humanitarian intervention in the complex arena of the emergency have not only guided the organizations' headquarters and management, but have also been inculcated into their senior volunteers in training courses held periodically (one of the courses MSF now delivers to its Responsables du Terrain is significantly labeled "la semaine environnement", "environment week", (Médecins sans Frontières 2004)). It is important to note that this knowledge of how an emergency "behaves" was not confined to its dynamics "in the field" and to the geographical borders of the emergency zone, and employed a broader perspective that incorporated the reactions to the emergency by international agencies, Western governments and humanitarian organizations as part of the reality whose regularities had to be extracted, understood and acted upon. Indeed, it was precisely the web of relations and interdependencies between the various political players and the multiple third-party witnesses that have constituted the backbone of the emergency according to the view advanced by reflexive humanitarianism.
Medical humanitarianism has been a knowledge-producing enterprise since its inception. It has been involved in the accumulation and distribution of facts about victims and crises as part of its commitment to bearing witness, and in the elaboration and codification of technical expertise that has taken the form of training courses, guidelines and standard kits marketed across the humanitarian community. But the reflexive knowledge that medical humanitarianism as well as other organizations and agencies now produced departed from the documentary and the bio-political strands of humanitarian expertise and dislodged their focus upon "populations in danger" in favor of a broader examination of the structural dynamics and interrelations that make up an emergency and of the humanitarian endeavor itself. Protecting the population, first and foremost from itself and from the effects that crowding and poor sanitation carried, was the main objective of humanitarian bio-power (Médecins sans Frontières 1997a). Portraying a population of victims, both as a vast human mass and as an aggregate of individual bare lives, was the aesthetic norm that underlined images and reports on humanitarian crises. While bio-political technologies and acts of documentation and advocacy alike alluded to various aspects of the emergency, they generated a one-dimensional portrait that consisted of documenting, describing and quantifying its humanitarian consequences and made no attempt to foreground and to conceptualize the emergency as such. Stating critical rates of mortality, codifying efficient methods of camp management, collecting epidemiological and socio-political data and voicing out victims' testimonials provided a thick description of cases of emergency and a general framework in which they were portrayed and understood, but rarely advanced a holistic conceptualization of the emergency as an idiosyncratic phenomenon. As much as they propagated the techniques and the morality of the emergency, the bio-political and the documentary strands of humanitarian expertise remained confined to the observable effects of the emergency upon a population of victims. In the reflexive investigations, however, the emergency gained a life of its own. Rather than an inert, passive receptacle of humanitarian assistance, it was construed as a milieu that reacted to humanitarian assistance if it did not anticipate it, and that often determined the value and meaning of humanitarian acts instead of being simply re-shaped by them.
In contradistinction to the other configurations of humanitarian knowledge, reflexive humanitarianism involved an inquiry into the preconditions of humanitarian action and a self-questioning engagement with its grounds. These were not to be based upon abstract, moral and legal, principles, but were rather to be elicited from actual cases in which humanitarian action confronted its own negative effects and was caught in intractable dilemmas. Cases held as the most instructive were those in which MSF either chose or was forced to narrow down its intervention or to withdraw its teams. As Rony Brauman put it in 1995, "To know why we intervene in certain circumstances necessarily implies knowing why we refuse to intervene in other circumstances" (Brauman 1994:17). This reflexive inquiry, which gave rise to dozens of monographs, conferences, articles and case-studies, engendered a casuistic humanitarian ethics that posed an alternative to the rigid principles and ethical codes that proliferated in the humanitarian community during the 1990s. At the same time, the ethical analysis of exceptionally difficult cases that were consecrated by recurring discussions – the 1984-5 Ethiopia famine, the exodus of the Hutu refugees to the camps in Zaire and Tanzania, the failed international intervention in Bosnia and the war in Kosovo, to name but few – brought to light the typical disturbances that an emergency posed and its inherent complexities. The objectification of the emergency and what amounted to a basic understanding of its dynamics were therefore inscribed in an ethical preoccupation with humanitarian responsibility. To put things differently, the age of humanitarian self-suspicion meant that the ethical self-fashioning of the expert-witnesses became mediated by and reliant upon knowledge of the dynamics of the emergency.
Nowhere is the affinity between the objectification of the emergency, the reflexive humanitarian witness and what became widely known as "the humanitarian dilemma" (Brauman 1996; Africa Rights 1994; Moore 1998) more apparent than in a series of case-studies recently published by MSF's research unit on "MSF Speaking Out" (Binet 2006). Originally meant to "provide the [sans-frontières] movement with a document addressing témoignage" [sic] that would "help volunteers understand and adopt the organisation's culture of speaking out on issues" (ibid, foreword), the studies provide a meticulous reconstruction of formative emergencies from the vantage point of the deliberation of the humanitarian witness and constitute an original example of polyphonic and inconclusive case-based ethics. Rather than analyzing ordinary emergencies where humanitarian witnessing followed a normal course, the studies underscore states of humanitarian exception in which "speaking out posed a dilemma for MSF and, thus, meant taking a risk" (ibid) because of its anticipated reverberations on the access to the victims and on the safety of humanitarian teams. The case-studies do not attempt to provide a coherent narrative of the emergency or of the positions adopted by the organization, but rather collate extracts from internal documents, press reports and interviews with MSF personnel in the headquarters and in the field in a montage format that employs minimal verbal linkage by a third-person author. This way, the studies highlight the inherent plurality of humanitarian witnessing, the struggles, contradictions and alliances between the various humanitarian and other witnesses to the emergency and the lacunae in and gaps between what was seen, what was said and what was done. The flow of events, which the studies document step-by-step as it unfolds, is filtered through this polyphonic drama of witnessing, which becomes the center of gravity of the narrative of the emergency.
For reflexive humanitarianism, then, the original scenes of "zone of emergency" have been cases where the inherently composite character of these zones and the political manipulation of humanitarian aid that they entail were revealed. These formative cases usually took place in refugee camps, which served, as we have seen, as the "zone of emergency" par excellence even if not as its unique incarnation, and involved an examination of the camps' proper dynamics. If, during the cold war, medical humanitarianism presented the refugee camp as both the consequence and the liberal, accessible and transparent negative of totalitarian rule, since the mid-1980s the "elusive and paradoxical" nature of the camp has been increasingly brought to light (Rufin 1986: 121; Terry 2002). Both in its public advocacy and in its analytic reflections, medical humanitarianism propagated the view that political sovereigns, guerrilla groups and Western governments use the presence of humanitarian organizations in the camp and the material support that they provide in order to advance their politics of exception. The prototype of the incorporation of the humanitarian by the political was the refugee-warrior who used the camps as a source of supplies and protection and turned it into a "humanitarian sanctuary" in which guerrilla groups were indistinguishable from the civilian population with which they mixed (Rufin 1986: 119). Zones of emergency were posited as disorienting, politico-humanitarian hybrids where humanitarian acts unwittingly acquired a political function. "Humanitarian aid", asserted Jean-Christophe Rufin, "is the continuation of politics by other means than war" (ibid, 17).
Yet, the ethically-inspired knowledge of the emergency had two sides, as the informed analysis of the conundrum of the emergency was accompanied by a conceptual re-affirmation of the "humanitarian space" that should be re-created and re-imposed in zones of emergency. More than just a politico-humanitarian imbroglio, reflexive humanitarianism held "zones of emergency" to be territories in dispute, in which humanitarian actors wary of political manipulation defied the politico-humanitarian hybrids that they encountered. Coined by MSF's president Brauman at the beginning of the 1990s, "humanitarian space" designated a set of preconditions designed to guarantee the ethical integrity of humanitarian action, such as the freedom of aid workers to evaluate needs and to control the distribution of assistance (Brauman 1991). Rather than a cluster of ethical principles that regulate the unfolding of humanitarian missions (such as the Red Cross's principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity etc.) "humanitarian space" referred to circumstantial conditions whose absence could rule out intervention altogether or lead to its suspension. A "zone of emergency", according to this position, was not a self-evident target or ground for humanitarian action that existed prior to the intervention, but often had to be turned into a space suitable for humanitarian intervention by arduous negotiation with the parties to the conflict.
Zones of emergency have therefore been the space where the hybridization of the political and the humanitarian intersect with a re-assertion of the autonomy of the humanitarian domain ["l'humanitaire"]. These two phases have been practically linked by an original device – "testimony of denunciation" [témoignage de dénonciation] (Médecins Sans Frontières 1997), or simply "speaking out", which medical humanitarianism, and most notably MSF, elaborated and employed to a growing extent during the 1990s. Critical reflection was not just a sterile soul-searching exercise and cannot be properly regarded as meta-humanitarian knowledge. It fed into, and was inspired by, public acts of testimony or advocacy in which MSF denounced the manipulation of the humanitarian apparatus by political forces during major emergencies in Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia, the Great Lakes Region, and in other places. In spite of what their name suggests, the thrust of MSF's testimonial speech-acts was a vociferous critique of this manipulation, and not simply narration of the emergencies, documentation of human rights violation or description of the sort of the populations that were caught in their web (cf. Brauman in Feher & Mangeot 2006). Instead of reconstructing the objective reality of the emergency, this particular humanitarian testimony had the performative effect of re-affirming the independence of the humanitarian witness and of asserting the autonomy of her humanitarian judgment. Mapped into such public testimonies, the analytic reflection on emergencies became not just useful knowledge required to plan and implement ethically-effective interventions, but an instrument of emergency intervention and an ethical strategy in and of itself. At the same time, reflection qua testimony served as a move in the struggle for recognition in the humanitarian field and as a means of acquiring and augmenting the symbolic capital of the witnessing organization that championed its autonomy.
Humanitarian testimony was crucial in bringing out the inherently nonmodern nature of zones of emergency, to use Bruno Latour's words (Latour 1993: 47). It exposed the affiliation between, if it did not actually combine, the work of translation (that involved the proliferation of politico-humanitarian hybrids) and the work of purification (that consisted of upholding the autonomy of the third-party humanitarian witness) that modern humanitarian initiatives vigilantly kept separate. In this respect, the reflexive form of humanitarian témoignage constituted a critical gesture that radically distinguished it from intrinsically modern eye-witnessing (Frisch 2004). The legacy of modern humanitarianism, whose traces can be located up until the Second World War if not beyond it, portrayed humanitarian action as the realm of free choice, and the arenas in which it intervened as unavoidable calamities, whose consequences may be alleviated but not altogether eliminated. Since its inception, the Red Cross movement, for example, notoriously distinguished not only between wars and natural disasters, each of which were allocated to a different operational agency, but more significantly between the act of charity, regarded as a matter of subjective dedication and as a sign of personal benevolence, and the incidence of war, portrayed as a "chronic disease" and considered an "inevitable evil" (Moynier 1882: 226; Hutchinson 1996: 106). Moreover, while firmly adhering to neutrality as one of its basic principles, the Red Cross maintained that humanitarian action constitutes an exception to politics (Pictet 1979: 57) and can guard itself against its contaminating influence. As Jean Pictet put it in his authoritative commentary on the principle of neutrality, "like the swimmer, who advances in the water but who drowns if he swallows it, the ICRC must reckon with politics without becoming a part of it" (ibid, 59). For the Red Cross, humanitarianism was immune to politics just as, in the last instance, war was resistant to charity.
The contemporary configuration of the emergency has blurred the ontological divisions between the man-made and the objectively-given and between the humanitarian and the political that were the basic matrix of most modern humanitarian endeavors. The emergency is not treated, like wars, disasters and epidemics before it, as an empirical event that awaits philanthropic good-will, but has rather interiorized its benevolent witness and has been pre-adjusted to its presence and intervention in its innermost, political workings. The emergency exists in many respects not only for its witnesses but through them. Humanitarian actors are involved, at least to some extent, in the fabrication of the emergency, and are determined, at least to some extent, by its political mechanisms. Moreover, the emergency defines and demarcates a sui-generis humanitarian domain but also designates the indistinguishability of the humanitarian and the political. In the emergency, the autonomy of the humanitarian witness is no longer presupposed, but is reclaimed in acts of testimony that expose the promiscuity of the humanitarian and the political. Therefore, more than just a bio-political space or a zone of indistinction between law and bare life, zones of emergency are actually the site where the humanitarian and the political, political suffering and the witness, objective evil and subjective compassion flow into one another and form a composite whole.
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