The war-hungry left: Importing democracy and human rights with airstrikes and barrel bombs

A review of Jean Bricmont’s ‘Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War’

pb14712Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, Belgium, Jean Bricmont’s 2006 book-length essay ‘Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War’ is a timely and relevant critique on the West’s democratic left. Not made from a right-wing perspective, but a rather humble, well-informed and insightful anti-imperialist perspective on the gap between the West’s human rights rhetoric – and its subsequent practices. Bricmont’s ‘Humanitarian Imperialism’ is an absolute must-read for every critical scholar of political science, international relations, human rights, humanitarian interventions, imperialism and Western hegemony.

Humanitarian imperialism, according to Bricmont, concedes the idea that western values are universal, bestowing the West with the right and even the duty to intervene in places where those values are perceived to be violated. Juxtaposed to this universalism is the notion of cultural relativism, or the idea that it is basically impossible to objectively judge other societies’ practices – including, for example, inequality and violence. Rather than engaging with either of these two extremes, Bricmont proposes a point of view that acknowledges that certain cultural practices are harmful, while at the same time recognising that Western interventions may do much more harm than good. Moreover, if the goal is to defeat ‘barbarism’, waging a war – which is barbaric in itself – thus quite frankly defeats the purpose.

This latter viewpoint allows for agreement with human rights alongside a denunciation of the way in which these principles are misused in practice. Bricmont argues how Western power has often tried (and succeeded) to present itself as altruistic: “when A exercises power over B, he does so for B’s ‘own good’” (p. 29), of which colonialism is one of the most obvious examples. Through such legitimising discourses, Western societies permit and even approve of the exercise of power over ‘the Rest’, regardless of how violent that exercise of power is. Bricmont reminds us how there was hardly any resistance in Western countries against the war in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Even today, there is very little resistance to the Western financial and military backing of Islamist groups in Syria.

The ideology of our time is “a certain discourse on human rights and democracy, mixed in with a particular representation of the Second World War. This discourse justifies Western interventions in the Third World in the name of the defense of democracy and human rights or against the ‘new Hitlers’” (p. 20). Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad has been pronounced one such a ‘new Hitler’.


The West is quick to denounce authoritarian states that exert direct control over their societies, for example through state-controlled media and the restriction of free speech. Such condemnation implies that the various mechanisms to control and manipulate people’s minds are to be found everywhere except in Western societies. Obviously, this is untrue. Nevertheless, control over the ‘hearts and minds’ of western populations may happen in a much more indirect way – for example by focusing the discussion on the “means employed to achieve the supposedly altruistic ends claimed by those in power, instead of asking whether the proclaimed aims are the real ones, or whether those pursuing them have the right to do so” (p. 32).

When NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International argue that belligerent must respect the rules of war, they take “the position of those who recommend that rapists use condoms” (p. 147), i.e. by shifting the focus to the style of execution, the need to critically interrogate the legitimacy of a certain action is effectively erased. Moreover, let’s not forget that Western societies have blood-soaked histories – including not only colonialism but also slavery and the genocide of the indigenous North American peoples.

Bricmont perceptively reveals the hypocrisy of the West’s self-image of the defenders of human rights, illustrated by for example a number of United Nations General Assembly (GA) Resolutions. In 1981, the GA voted on whether education, work, health care, proper nourishment, national development, etc., are human rights. One hundred and thirty-five states voted in favour of this resolution, whereas one state voted against: the United States. Also in 1981, the GA voted on condemning apartheid in South Africa and Namibia. One hundred and forty-five states voted in favour, one against: the United States. Although Bricmont presents only a selection of resolutions that the United States voted against, we must not forget that its relationship with international human rights treaties is difficult, to say the least.


Yet it is one thing to denounce hypocrisy, and another to point out the death and destruction that result from the exercise of power. Whereas Europe and the United States have a self-proclaimed duty to assist (persecuted) minorities making demands from their governments, Bricmont points to the fact that movements that complain of being persecuted do not always seek equal rights, but sometimes the restoration of former inequalities. As such, foreign intervention is not unlikely to provoke internal conflict and make things worse rather than better.

(Genuine) good intentions must be accompanied by an adequate analysis of power relations between different forces, as well as the position that the person (or state) expressing those (good) intentions occupies within those relations. Especially considering it is the unequal world order in which the roots of many contemporary problems lie in the first place. Moreover, the war in Iraq and undoubtedly the one in Syria today are much more costly than the amount of money it would take to save the lives of people dying from a lack of access to food and health care exactly because of global inequality.

In his book, Bricmont cleverly shows how the Western ideology of human rights is abused to legitimise illegal wars against the countries of ‘the Rest’ that refuse to be dominated. Well-argued and containing examples from all over the world, ‘Humanitarian Imperialism’ conveys the increasingly urgent message that Western societies must find a way of existence that does not depend on the unsustainable relation of domination over the rest of the world.


The 16 Days of Activism kicks off today


Today, 25 November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day. During this period, worldwide campaigns will use the colour orange in order to show their support for this important cause.

As our world suffers from political and ideological polarisation and an unprecedented number of protracted crises – contexts characterised by long-term political instability, (episodes of) violent conflict, and vulnerability of the lives and livelihoods of the population – global support for this cause is ever more important.

Research has provided us with evidence that gender-based violence is an intricate aspect of war. Conflict-affected populations experience high rates of sexual violence against both women, men and children, as well as a sharp increase of intimate partner violence. Recently for example, international media have provided us with accounts of the sexual enslavement of Yezidi women and girls by Daesh in northern Syria and Iraq.

International instruments that aim to put an end to war-time gender-based violence, such as Security Council Resolution 1325 and its follow-up resolutions on women, peace and security, often have significant drawbacks. For example, framing sexual violence in conflict as a “weapon of war” fails to recognise perpetrators other than armed combatants, such as (ex-)intimate partners or international humanitarian personnel.

Also, focusing exclusively on female vulnerability not only disregards their strength and agency, but also overlooks men and boys who become victims of sexual violence – think of boys recruited as child soldiers, men who suffer sexual torture as war prisoners at the hands of both men and women, or citizens who are forced at gunpoint to sexually violate their family members.

In order to effectively combat sexual and gender-based violence – both in war and peace – men and boys play a crucial role which deserves much more attention than is currently recognised. Indeed, instead of teaching our women and girls (and boys and men) how to not get raped or abused, we need to teach our men (and women) to not rape and abuse. An exclusive focus on the victims of crime will never bring about sustainable solutions if it fails to disregards perpetrators.

We need to communicate to the world that violence is never a solution, but that only through inclusive dialogue, solutions can be reached for even the most complex issues.



Sexual Violence in Game of Thrones

This text was a presentation made at the seminar ‘Winter is Coming: Game of Thrones through the International Relations (IR) Lens’, organised by Studentenvereniging voor Internationale Betrekkingen (Dutch United Nations Student Association)
10 October 2016, Amsterdam, the Netherlands


Well, first of all I’d like to thank my colleagues here for their really interesting perspectives on the Game of Thrones series.

Before I start, I’ll introduce myself. My name is Rosanne and I recently graduated from the VU in international public health, after which I received a research grant to do a study on humanitarian policymaking. During my studies both in the Netherlands and abroad, and my work, I’ve focused primarily on sexual and gender-based violence. And there’s enough of that on Game of Thrones.

So, my contribution here is to present you with a feminist perspective on the series, and I will in particular focus on sexual violence.

And I think it’s important to first define what feminism really is. Because for many it’s still a scary word that evokes images of stereotypical hairy, man-hating lesbians. But feminism doesn’t hate men, and I don’t hate men – I mean, I’m engaged to one – but feminism to me is an acknowledgement that gender equality is still a faraway dream.

And I’ve encountered that a lot in my research on sexual and gender-based violence, particularly in developing countries, where families spend the little money they have to send their sons to school but not their daughters, who then grow up to become women who are economically dependent on their husbands, who in turn can get away with physical and sexual abuse (and possibly infecting their wives with HIV) because she simply does not have anywhere else to go.

Social problems related to gender, like unequal pay, the fact that we accept that a 3-month pregnant women will not be hired for a job because she’ll have to give birth in 6 months, child-rearing duties are still primarily women’s jobs, the fact that some countries legally do not recognise marital rape, and that men all over the world hold opinions that make it OK to rape a woman or kill her for a wide variety of reasons – all of these are often ill-addressed because of a lack of political will. Even in international humanitarian policies, women belong to the same category as children: they are weak, cannot take care of themselves, and they have to be protected. So the idea that we live in a post-feminist world, is a fanciful one.

So, these are the types of problems I want to address, and that’s why I call myself a feminist. Feminism is about defining, establishing, and achieving gender equality in terms of political, economic, personal, and social rights for women equal to those of men.

And, when I first started watching the Game of Thrones series, what I loved about it primarily, were its strong, female characters. Many contemporary films only portray young, beautiful women that play more the role of eye candy, than actually having a part of the story to tell.

I remember this film I watched a while ago called ‘Man of Earth’ (2007), which for some reason I don’t understand got an IMDB rating of 8 out of 10, which is about this guy called ‘John Oldman’ who says he was born in the prehistoric time, he’s never died, and has seen all the ages pass. The entire movie is about him sitting in a cabin with some of his colleagues (he is a teacher), and he’s telling his story and recounting historical facts that he was an eyewitness to. And there are 7 people in this room, 4 men and 3 women. And when you listen closely, the women are actually not contributing meaningfully to the story. There is an old woman who is continuously sceptic about John Oldman’s story and threatening to leave the room, and then a younger woman who is falling in love with him. The third young woman doesn’t say much at all, but is the student/girlfriend of one of the teachers. Every time there is interesting dialogue about human history, it’s the men who do the talking. They are making the story. The women are basically just token characters, to fill up the room.

That’s very different in Game of Thrones. First of all, from the beginning I thought that the Game of Thrones women were for once not the typical Hollywood women: young, blond, beautiful – no, these were real women. They were young like Arya, or they were older like Catelyn Stark or Olenna Tyrell who is the grandmother of Margaery. These female characters are not “perfect women” – instead, they are real persons, who have a meaningful part to play in the overall Game of Thrones story. Moreover, they often do not subscribe to traditional gender roles. We can’t say that Arya is a typical girl – nor can we say that Brienne of Tarth is a typical woman.

Not your typical Hollywood character: Catelyn Stark (played by Michelle Fairley)

What has been disturbing many women about Game of Thrones however, is the many scenes of sexual violence in the series. That relates to the series’ various rape scenes, but also prostitution, display of brothels, paedophilia and incest. But let’s talk about rape: many leading female characters have been raped.

Daenerys for example, on her “wedding night” with Dothraki Khal Drogo – a scene in which she keeps crying, while she’s being circled by this unknown, big, barbaric-looking man who doesn’t speak her language, and she is the small, white-haired symbol of innocence and purity. So there’s an interesting contrast going on.

Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) wedding night with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa)

Sansa, as I’m sure we all remember, was raped by Ramsey Bolton on her “wedding night”, in a particularly disturbing scene played out in a dark, candle-lit room – where Ramsey with that particular maniac smile of his, first starts off to ask her whether she is still a virgin and that she better not be lying to him, after which he orders her to take off her clothes in front of both him and Theon Greyjoy, by which Ramsey wants to humiliate them both. He actually says to Theon to “now watch her become a woman”. He then rips her dress apart and rapes her, where the camera turns away from her terrified, crying expression, to the face of Theon, he is horrified and he is sobbing, and we hear her screams and cries in the background. So that doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) wedding night with Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon)

Similarly, Cersei was raped by Jaime in the sept of Baelor, where their son King Joffrey lay dead. Although both Game of Thrones staff and the two actors maintain that it was rather rough love-making scene than a rape scene, Cersei does keep repeating “stop it”, and “it’s not right”, but Jaime doesn’t stop.

In a column written on that particular episode, writer Jessica Valenti discussed the qualifiers we attach to rape – so what elements do we look for in order to call a particular act a rape, and the danger of not calling it rape when we see it, calling out Game of Thrones director Alex Graves for his comment that the sex between Jaime and Cersei was consensual. In this case, she said, Alex Graves’ artistic decisions reflect a real world aversion to even noticing rape as violence. Even calling it “non-consensual sex” would disguise the fact that it is rape.

Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in the Sept of Baelor

Some Game of Thrones critics have said that the series normalize rape, intense sexual violence as well as prostitution and incest – purely for our entertainment. The question here is then, we know that rape is a grave and wide-spread social problem all over the world, but what happens when we show fictional sexual violence on TV series that are viewed by millions of people worldwide?

Media studies from the 80s and 90s found that rape is often portrayed as a brutal attack by a stranger – even though global statistics have again and again shown that most sexual violence is actually perpetrated by persons known to the victim, such as family members, or a current or ex-intimate partners. In fiction, rape was and is often used as a way to construct masculinity, where the bestial behaviour of the rapist is contrasted with that of the hero – rather than confronting a serious social problem. (Ramsey not someone we want to identify with, perhaps that’s why Cersei-Jaime scene so disturbing, because we want to identify with him, even though he is a Lannister, we want to believe he is a good guy – and good guys don’t rape women)

Psychological studies on the effects of fictional sexual violence on people’s thoughts and behaviour have shown that sexual violence in the media plays a significant role in the fostering of rape myths and in the acceptance of rape and other forms of violence against women (Malamuth & Check, 1981).

Rape myths as described by Martha Burt, are prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists – which state for example that those who claim to have been raped are often liars; that real rape is violent and committed by a stranger; that victims contribute to their own attacks by provoking or asking for rape; and that victims are helpless and passive. Feminists have worked hard to dispel these incorrect, traditional ideas about rape – but unfortunately they are still believed by many.

There is evidence that believing rape myths are strongly related to the acceptance of (sexual) violence against women, and even self-reported likelihood of raping and with aggressive behaviour in general (Check & Malamuth, 1985). A similar study has shown that after watching media portrayals of sexual violence, males were more accepting of interpersonal violence and rape myths, more attracted to sexual aggression, and subsequently less sympathetic toward a rape trial victim, and less likely to judge a defendant as guilty of rape (Weisz & Earls, 1995). This implies that if societies are continuously exposed to rape myths through the media, acceptance of these beliefs and the likelihood of rape could rise.

Rape myths: Society teaches to not get raped, rather than to not rape (source:

The question is then, does Game of Thrones show rape myths?

In neither of the three scenes I just described, was the rapist an unknown stranger: in Daenerys’ and Sansa’s cases, the perpetrator was the man they had been forced to marry, and in Cersei’s case of course it was her brother and lover. Indeed, feminist analyses of power assert that the greatest gender inequality lies in the private sphere – which is exactly what the series show. In my opinion, the scenes did not show in any way that Daenerys, Sansa, or Cersei asked for it, liked it, nor that are they passive victims – rather, it seemed to be realistically portrayed in a way that shows the horrific nature of sexual violence.

Game of Thrones is a tale in which writer George Martin wants to show a darker and more realistic portrayal of the horrors of war. The story is set in a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages, and is according to the author strongly based on history in order to show what medieval society was like, and reacting to what he calls the so-called Disneyland Middle Ages (which portray a mythologized glorification of war).

In an interview, Martin said “I’m writing about war, which is what almost all epic fantasy is about. But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist”.

Martin continued: “To omit [rape] from a narrative centred on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too). Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil,”.

To say therefore that sexual violence in the series is merely for our entertainment, would not do it justice – I think these particular scenes reflect real-world experiences of many women around the world, not just rape by someone known to them, but also forced marriage for example. The way in which rape is portrayed in the series do not conform so much to false traditional ideas about sexual violence, its perpetrators and victims. Moreover, by not showing sexual violence in series about war and power, you risk adding to the sense of taboo that still surrounds this topic.

To end my talk, I’d like to give you something to think about.  What is shown in the series, and how it is shown, is ultimately a choice of those are involved in the creation of television, right?

And traditionally, women, as well as minorities, and older writers have been underemployed in the television industry.

In Game of Thrones, according to IMDB, there have been 7 writers, all of whom were white, 5 of whom were male and 2 women (Vanessa Taylor and Jane Espenson). The show has had 18 directors, all of whom were white, 17 of whom were male, and 1 woman (Michelle MacLaren).

  • Vanessa Taylor was the only female staff writer on the TV series, who joined the writing staff in Season 2 and continued through Season 3, but then left to work on film projects.
  • Jane Espenson wrote one episode in Season 1, but she wasn’t a staff writer, which mean that she wasn’t an active member of the roundtable meetings at which the other writers discuss adaptation decisions.
  • In Seasons 4 and 5, therefore, the TV series had no female scriptwriters – and multiple critics have noted that exactly in these scenes, rape scenes were introduced that weren’t in the novels.
  • Michelle MacLaren was the only female director on the TV series, who worked on the series in Seasons 3 and 4, but who also left for other film projects afterwards. Season 5 was therefore the first TV season in which there were no female scriptwriters or directors

And this is striking, no? Clearly we don’t live in a post-feminist era, but in an era, still, where TV is made by white men, where all main characters are white, main female characters are raped, and all black actors are secondary or tertiary characters – like Missandei and Grey Worm. I do apologize that I couldn’t have focused more also on ‘race’ in Game of Thrones, but that would have made this lecture a lot longer! I do think it is important that if you tell any story of power struggles, even if it is imagines stories, like Game of Thrones, you cannot exclude the people that fight these battles on a daily basis.


Valerie Bryson (2003) Feminist Political Theory: An Introduction (Second Edition). Palgrave Macmillan

Monica G. Weisz, Christopher M. Earls. The effects of exposure to filmed sexual violence on attitudes toward rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (March 1995), Vol. 10, Issue 1, p71 13p. Accessed 9-10-2016 from

James V. P. Check & Neil Malamuth (1985) An empirical assessment of some feminist hypotheses about rape. International Journal of Women’s Studies, 8, pp 414-423.

Neil M. Malamuth & James V. P. Check, (1981) The effects of mass media exposure on acceptance of violence against women: A field experiment. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, pp 436-446.

Neil M Malamuth and James V P Check (1985) The effects of aggressive pornography on beliefs in rape myths: Individual differences. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, pp 299-320.

Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence – Lisa M. Cuklanz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (2000)


Presentation: Sexual violence against women and girl refugees

Interreligious Conference of European Women Theologians (IKETH)
Annual Conference, 23–27 September 2016, Kolymbari, Crete, Greece

 Theme: Being on the Move – Experiences of Refugee Women and their Host Communities

Presenting at the Orthodox Academy of Crete

With the war in Syria ongoing, its neighbouring countries as well as Europe are experiencing large numbers of refugees searching safer grounds. My talk will be on women and girl refugees from the Middle East (primarily Syria, Iraq) and their vulnerability to sexual violence in their countries of origin – torn apart by violent conflict; the risk of sexual violence during their flight to neighbouring countries and Europe; as well as risks in the final destination countries. I will explain what sexual violence is, and what dimensions are important in understanding, and responding to, this severe violation of women’s human rights. In order to do so, I always like to use Janie Leatherman’s definition, an American scholar on the gendered dimensions of war, which states that:

Sexual violence in armed conflict happens in a place, and involves violent acts, perpetrators, victims, survivors and impacts ranging from health to a broad array of social consequences”.[i]

Leatherman reminds us why it is necessary to look beyond the individual victim/survivor, and ask more questions than ‘what were you wearing’, and ‘why were you walking alone at night’. Indeed, in order to understand sexual violence, we have to look at where it happens, what happens, who is the perpetrator or perpetrators (in plural) – including their motive(s), who is the victim/survivor, and what is the impact.

  1. Place

If we look at the places where sexual violence acts against women and girl refugees happen, I can be short: it happens everywhere. It happens in the country of origin, it happens in refugee camps, it happens along the refugee and migration route to west Europe, and it happens in the asylum centres in the final destination countries. Moreover, considering the often high levels of intimate partner violence among refugees and internally displaced persons,[ii] we can say that in many cases, not even the home is a refuge from violence.

It is estimated that approximately one in five refugee or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings experience sexual violence.[iii] The real numbers are likely to be higher, as there are multiple barriers that prevent women and girls from disclosing experiences of sexual violence – but I will come back to that. In general, it can be said that when people flee from violence, they risk becoming separated from their family members and losing their protective social networks, in what constitutes a systematic collapse of safe space.[iv]

  1. Sexual violence acts

When we talk about sexual violence against women and girl refugees, what exactly happens to them? It is a heavy topic, and perhaps uncomfortable for some, but nevertheless necessary to discuss in order to understand the full extent of women and girl refugees’ experiences. When we talk about sexual violence, we talk about rape (including rape that involves penetration with objects), gang-rape (which is rape by multiple perpetrators), genital mutilation and sexual torture, sexual slavery and human trafficking, forced impregnation or forced abortion, and forced marriage.

But to give you a sense of what some of these women go through, I have a quote from Leila, a young Yezidi woman who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch,[v] an organisation that has documented sexual violence in Yezidi women and girls who have escaped ISIS in northern Iraq. She was ordered to take a bath, but she knew that this often happened before the captured girls got raped:

I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, stood on a chair to take the wire connecting the light to electrocute myself but there was no electricity. After they realized what I was doing, they beat me with a long piece of wood and with their fists. My eyes were swollen shut and my arms turned blue. They handcuffed me to the sink, and cut my clothes with a knife and washed me. They took me out of the bathroom, brought in [my friend] and raped her in the room in front of me.”[vi]

In the Netherlands and Belgium, a study was conducted in which 223 refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants were interviewed about their experiences of sexual and gender-based violence. Forty-seven interviewees had personally experienced sexual violence (21%), and 141 (63%) knew of someone close to them who has experienced sexual violence. The study found particularly high rates of gang rape and multiple (repeated) rapes. Perpetrators were primarily current or ex-intimate partners (in a third of the cases), or sadly, asylum professionals – and thus persons in positions of power (in 23% of the cases).[vii]

  1. Perpetrators

The abovementioned study also gives an indication of who are sexual violence perpetrators? They can be women’s (ex-) husbands, their family members, strangers (for example fellow refugees), and humanitarian actors and asylum officials. Also, sexual violence is committed by state and non-state armed forces in the country of origin. In conflict, is is often used as a weapon of war to “intimidate parties to the conflict destroying identity, dignity and the social fabrics of families and communities”.[viii]

In Lebanon, focus groups with Syrian refugees revealed that women and girl refugees are at high risk of engaging in survival sex, where women and girls exchange sexual favours for food or other goods, or money – for example to help pay the rent which is relatively expensive compared to Syria. Here, sexual violence is intimately connected to families’ desperate economic situations. One focus group member stated that: “If you want other help from other NGOs you should send your daughter or your sister or sometimes your wife… with full make-up so you can get anything… I think you understand me.” [ix]

Likewise, female refugees are also extremely vulnerable to intimate partner violence (IPV). Men may suffer from low self-esteem due to the immense pressure and stress related to what it means to be a refugee – which may lead to them releasing their frustration in a negative way: “I don’t feel that I am a real man after what has happened to me now, and to be honest, I can’t handle it anymore … When my wife asks me for vegetables or meat to prepare food, I hit her. She does not know why she was hit, neither do I.”[x]

  1. Victims/survivors and impact of sexual violence

More often than not, sexual violence is still a taboo topic. Global disclosure rates are low, and existing statistics are likely to be gross underestimations. There are various reasons for women to keep their experiences of sexual violence to themselves, as disclosure may have serious consequences. A prominent reason for non-disclosure is our global culture of victim-blaming. A woman who is raped might be blamed by her partner, family, community, and society for having been raped, intensifying not just the pain of the experience, but also feelings of guilt and shame. Subsequently, a victim might face social rejection, discrimination, and retaliatory violence – when a perpetrator takes revenge for the rape having been reported. In certain extreme cases, a woman may be killed for having been raped – this so-called ‘honour violence’, often perpetrated by a family member, aims to restore the family’s loss of honour caused by the rape.[xi]

  1. Humanitarian responses

Disclosure could possibly help limit the physical, psychological, and social impact of sexual violence against women and girl refugees. A joint assessment report by the UNHCR, UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) undertaken in Greece and Macedonia in November 2015, found that the way in which governments, humanitarian actors, EU institutions, and CSOs currently address sexual violence against refugees arriving in and crossing through Europe, is inadequate. [xii]

For example, the assessment revealed that both in Greece and in Macedonia, there was no equipment available for evidence collection (to later be used in court), and no post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits. The latter have to be taken within 72 hours after rape in order to minimise the risk of an HIV[xiii] infection. The report also documented the urgent need for female Arabic and Farsi translators and interpreters – which is crucial considering the sensitive nature of sexual violence and the barriers to disclosure.

In the assessment report, some humanitarian actors responded that services for sexual and gender-based violence victims/survivors would not be used by refugees, because they do not tend in stay in any given place for very long. Whereas that may be true for the majority of refugees flowing into Europe,  given that certain measures have to be taken immediately – like evidence collection and HIV prevention – this does not constitute a legitimate reason to not offer such services. Indeed, as per humanitarian guidelines, “Failure to take action against GBV represents a failure by humanitarian actors to meet their most basic responsibilities for promoting and protecting the rights of affected populations”.[xiv] At the same time, female refugees must be made aware of their rights, what health risks are associated with sexual violence, and what services are available, from medical services to psychotherapy and safe houses.

  1. Politics of sexual violence

It is remarkable that in Europe, there has been little concern over sexual violence against women and girl refugees – as illustrated by the lack of available services. The aforementioned assessment study showed that European governments generally seem to think that sexual and gender-based violence does not constitute a prominent feature of its refugee crisis – a perception that is likely being reinforced by a general lack of data.

What Europe has been very concerned with however, is sexual violence committed by male refugees and immigrants against ‘European’ women. Various right-wing media have reported on this issue with absurd titles such as “Europe’s Rape Epidemic: Western Women Will Be Sacrificed At The Altar Of Mass Migration“,[xv] and “Rape epidemic in Europe: Why won’t European politicians do anything to stop it?”.[xvi] Many of these reports seem to be more concerned with the fact that women have been raped by ‘non-European’ men than the simple fact that they have been raped.

Sexual assaults like those in the German city of Cologne[xvii] are highly mediatized and create a feeling of “clashing civilisations”, with the civilisation of the Other – and its attitude to women – as the greatest problem.[xviii] This completely ignores the fact that sexual violence has always existed in Europe, and that refugees and immigrants have not ‘brought’ sexual and gender-based violence to Europe.

We come back to what has been mentioned before: the arrival of refugees and immigrants is not the problem. Rather, it reveals and exacerbates problems that already existed. In the case of sexual violence, the lack of concern for women and girl refugees’ safety is telling of how sexual violence is still not taken seriously enough. My question to you as experts in religion and inter-faith dialogue, is, how can religion and religious leaders play a role in acknowledging the importance of addressing sexual and gender-based violence?


[i] Janie L. Leatherman (2011) Sexual violence and armed conflict. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press (p.9)
[ii] Cari Jo Clark, Susan A Everson-Rose, Shakira Franco Suglia, Rula Btoush, Alvaro Alonso, and Muhammad M Haj-Yahia (2010) Association between exposure to political violence and intimate-partner violence in the occupied Palestinian territory: A cross-sectional study. Lancet, 375, pp.310-316. Accessed 3-10-2016, from:
[iii] The Prevalence of Sexual Violence among Female Refugees in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Alexander Vu, Atif Adam, Andrea Wirtz, Kiemanh Pham, Leonard Rubenstein, Nancy Glass, Chris Beyrer, and Sonal Singh. Version 1. PLoS Curr. 2014 March 18; 6: ecurrents.dis.835f10778fd80ae031aac12d3b533ca7. Published online 2014 March 18. doi: 10.1371/currents.dis.835f10778fd80ae031aac12d3b533ca7
[iv] Janie L. Leatherman (2011) Sexual violence and armed conflict. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. (p.89)
[v] Human Rights Watch (2015, 14 April) Iraq: ISIS escapees describe systematic rape – Yezidi survivors in need of urgent care. Accessed 25 September 2016, from:
[vi] Ibid, section: Suicide attempts.
[vii] Ines Keygnaert, Nicole Vettenburg, and Marleen Temmerman (2012) Hidden violence is silent rape: sexual and gender-based violence in refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands, Culture Health & Sexuality, Vol. 14, No. 5 (May), pp. 505-52. Accessed 22-9-2016, from:
[viii] UNHCR (2013, 28 February) UNHCR warns of humanitarian cost of Syrian conflict, especially on the displaced. Accessed 21 September 2016, from: (paragraph 3)
[ix] Ghida Anani (2013 September) Dimensions of gender-based violence against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Forced Migration Review 44, p. 75-78. Accessed 25-9-2016 from: (p. 76)
[x] Ibid, (p. 76)
[xi] See for example: BBC Ethics Guide (2014) Honour crimes. Accessed 3-10-2016, from:
[xii] UNHCR, UNFPA, WRC (2015, November) Initial assessment report: Protection risks for women and girls in the European refugee and migrant crisis. Accessed 20-9-2016, from:
[xiii] Human immuno-deficiency virus
[xiv] Ibid; and Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) (2015) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing risk, promoting resilience and aiding recovery. Accessed 3-10-2016, from: (p.14)
[xv] Anne-Marie Waters (2015, 6 October) Europe’s rape epidemic: Western women will be sacrificed at the altar of mass migration. Breitbart. Accessed 3-10-2016, from:
[xvi] M Snyder (2016, January 12) Rape epidemic in Europe: Why won’t European politicians do anything to stop is? Infowars. Accessed 31 January 2016, from:
[xvii] BBC News (2016, 5 January) Germany shocked by Cologne New Year gang assaults on women. Accessed 3-10-2016, from:
[xviii] Paul Hedges (2016). Rape and Murder among Refugees: A Crisis Point for Europe’s Immigration Policy? (RSIS Commentaries, No. 034). RSIS Commentaries. Singapore: Nanyang Technological University. Accessed 21-9-2016, from:

SEMINAR Governing (In)Security Through Resilience: Problems and Promises

This piece was presented during the seminar ‘Governing (In)Security Through Resilience: Problems and Promises’, supported by ACCESS Europe and the Institute for Societal Resilience, and hosted by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 

Presenting the preliminary results of the project ‘Resilience Governance of Humanitarian Emergencies’. Photo by Andy Onderstal.

International policy is full of buzzwords. Empowerment. Protection. Capacity-building. ‘Building Back Better’. The Participation Society. Now, there is a new kid on the block, and it’s called Resilience.

Today’s seminar is part of a research project that our chair, Professor Wagner, and myself have been working on under the auspices of the Institute for Societal Resilience. Today, I want to use this opportunity to present some of the preliminary results we have achieved thus far in unpacking this tricky concept.

Although well-known for years in engineering, systems ecology, and psychology, in political science and international relations, resilience is a relatively new concept. It is nevertheless omnipresent in international policy, such as in UNDP’s refugee resilience response plan – or the 3RP – to the crisis in Syrian and its neighbouring countries, as well as the upcoming EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, in which resilience is a key theme. A large number of international institutions now work with resilience one way or another, including various United Nations agencies, ECHO (which is the EU’s department for humanitarian aid and civil protection), the UK’s department for international development (DFID), the IMF, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as well as a multitude of NGOs.

In political science and IR, scholars have primarily engaged with resilience in the fields of global governance, where they are looking at how institutions or social norms for example persist and endure; the subfields of international development, humanitarian aid, and disaster risk reduction; terrorism and counterterrorism; as well as its relation to neoliberalism.

In this project, our aim is to try to unpack resilience as a policy concept used to respond to risk and emergencies in the fields of security and humanitarian action in response to conflict. It is about governing or managing insecurity – the threat of terrorism as demonstrated by the attacks in Paris and Brussels for example, ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudans, spurring an unprecedented refugee crisis that has shaken Europe to its core. In order to explore the politics around resilience as a policy concept, we are analysing the literature, policy documents, and complementing these with key informant interviews: policymakers and practitioners who work or have worked directly with the concept of resilience.

One of my interviewees said that resilience in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. He said: if someone comes to me for advice on how to become more resilient, the first thing I will ask is: resilience to what? If you want to be more resilient against the flu, I might advise you to get a vaccination. When you want to be more resilient against financial shocks, I might advise you to talk to a banker. So, resilience against what? Another crucial question is resilience of whom? What I need to become more resilient might be very different from what another person needs to become more resilient. So, resilience of whom? Thirdly, resilience by what means? What do resilience policies actually do? I will explore these questions and in it acknowledge that perhaps we cannot even speak of resilience, but should speak of resiliences (plural).

Resilience to what?

One of the first things that I noticed in unpacking this concept, is that resilience is accompanied by a profound change in the way people view the world.

There is a feeling that increasingly, the world is plagued by natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and droughts – brought on by climate change. Long-standing and complex conflicts such as in central Africa, the Sahel, and the Middle East and the subsequent refugee crises have shaken our beliefs in security. So have terrorist attacks, financial crises, and ongoing geopolitical tensions.

Moreover, we are beginning to understand that everything is connected in very complex ways, and that when we try to fix one part of the system, we may not only make the problem worse, we might also cause problems elsewhere.

Think for example of how the last 50-60 years of poverty reduction by sending billions of dollars to African countries has not only not solved poverty, it has also worsened inequality and stimulated widespread corruption.

Closely related is the idea that risks and crises have become de-territorialized. Crises are understood as crossing national borders, which was of course dramatically demonstrated by the refugee crisis. War in Syria and Iraq have caused millions of people to run for safer grounds. We cannot get away with framing the refugee crisis as a Greek or Italian problem, it is a problem of Syria and its neighbouring countries as well as a European problem.

In security circles, this idea has engendered a collapse between internal and external security: no longer is the security of other countries in Europe’s neighbourhood irrelevant for Europe’s own security. A related term is the security-development nexus in European policy: development is necessary to ensure security.

In many EU policies this new world is referred to as more connected, contested, and complex. It communicates the idea is that the complexity of our world makes it almost impossible to accurately foresee shocks and crises. We cannot prevent from happening what we cannot foresee (all the possible outcomes). When risks and crises are unknowable and unpredictable, our knowledge becomes imperfect, as there are limits to what we can know. As a result, shocks and crises are inevitable, and final security becomes impossible.

If shocks and crises becomes the new normal, adapting to them the best way one can, may be the most fruitful solution. Especially in a time when governments are facing the limits to their (financial) capacity and possibly also their willingness to protect their citizens’ safety. One could say then that within the resilience narrative, governments are delegating more and more responsibilities to their citizens for their own security. No wonder resilience evokes ideas such as self-reliance and self-protection.

One of the most contested ideas in the resilience literature is that shocks and crises should be seen as positive experiences and opportunities for learning. The links with Darwinism are undeniable: we have to successfully adapt to our circumstances, and learn from it to be better prepared for the next shock. Yet, how do you confer the idea of a learning opportunity to someone who has just lost everything in a hurricane or war? These are moral dilemmas that have to be explored before widespread adoption of resilience in international policy.

Resilience of whom?

When we think of resilience, we must also look at the person who is now supposed to be or become resilient.

One of the key themes that comes up in resilience literature is the responsibilized subject. Resilience then refers to self-reliance, making subjects responsible for absorbing, adapting to, and transforming their own hardships. I mentioned before, governments are delegating more responsibilities to citizens for their own security against shocks and crises. A critique that comes with this thinking, is that responsibilizing citizens and encouraging entrepreneurship, would allow governments to cut budgets, making resilience a neoliberal tool of social control.

Other critiques on resilience actually warn for the loss of power and agency. The argument goes that considering shocks and crises are inevitable and thus largely out of our control, a resilient subject is one that has to continuously adapt to a changing world, rather than changing it. Being no longer in control has a depoliticising effect and is argued to kill our political will to change the world we live in.

Moreover, if we must look at shocks and crises as positive learning opportunities, then are we not in fact encouraged to expose ourselves to danger?

At the same time, resilience presupposes vulnerability and susceptibility. In other words, because we are vulnerable to shocks and crises, we must adapt and accommodate the world around us in order to be less vulnerable. It is nevertheless important to remember that vulnerability is primarily an externally-imposed label: not many people will deliberately call themselves vulnerable. Moreover, some groups are traditionally labelled as vulnerable, such as women and children, the elderly or disabled. It is not unthinkable that they will be the first to be targeted by resilience policies.

On the other side of the coin, resilience might not be for all. In a more dangerous world, only those that possess the resources can afford to be resilient. Some scholars specifically point to the concept of gated communities, where security becomes a matter of exclusivity, rather than a common good for all.

And there are ample examples of that. I have seen the gated communities in South Africa, where whites can afford security. Groups of houses surrounded by high walls topped off with barbed wire. Entrances are guarded by armed personnel who call the person you are visiting to check whether they are expecting visitors, vehicle registration numbers are recorded, and security cameras are everywhere. They are now protected from the vulnerable, who are poor, uneducated, and violent.

There is one more thing we have to be careful of. When resilience is framed as a characteristic or quality that we can learn – as in resilience trainings given in schools or the US military, we are also responsible for failing to learn. In practice, this means that a soldier returning from Afghanistan traumatized might be held responsible for his trauma because he didn’t learn to be resilient enough.

By what means?

Security, development, and humanitarian policies are full of the word resilience. Implementing policy is difficult in and of itself, let alone policy driven by a vague and contested concept as resilience.

An important theme that is coming up in this study, is whether the underlying causes for shocks and crises are addressed by taking a resilience approach, or evaded.  The question then becomes, do communities have to merely absorb and adapt to shocks, or does a resilience framework still allow us to politically engage in order to transform the conditions that drive shocks and crises, in which power plays a great role?

There is some work that points to the overlap between the concept of capacity-building and resilience. International actors should be careful not to underestimate the power relations inherent in defining resilience, drawing up resilience policies, and intervene in a particular country to implement these policies and build resilience.

The dilemma is that technocratic approaches that depoliticise such practices allow humanitarian actors to actively engage with resilience, without directly violating their humanitarian principles such as neutrality. This supposed political neutrality is one of their primary tools to negotiate not only their access to populations that are difficult to reach due to violent conflict, but also their own and their staff’s safety.

Yet, not all is bad on the resilience front. One theme that has come up during our interviews with various policymakers and practitioners involved in resilience work, is that resilience provides a lingua franca – a common language that brings a diverse range of actors together. Resilience engages with the so-called humanitarian-development nexus. Traditionally, the fields of humanitarian relief and development have been completely separate, both institutionally and philosophically.

One of my interviewees who had been working on UNDP’s refugee resilience and response plan to the crisis in Syria, said it was the first time they had been sitting at the same table as the humanitarians. And they were so alien to each other that they had to start the meeting with explaining to each other the kind of work they did.

Similarly, I had other interviewees that resilience has changed their way of working and made them more open to working with different kind of organisations in responding to crises.

Perhaps the international community is finally realizing that these recurrent and longstanding protracted crises characterised by weak governments, massive displacement, conflict, and sometimes intersecting with and exacerbated by natural disasters – demand for a different, and more integrated response.

In conclusion,

We are acknowledging the limits to our capacity to assess risks and prevent shocks and crises. Although it may indeed be impossible to foresee everything, there is a deeply moral argument for prevention, we cannot abuse resilience by becoming lethargic to whatever happens to us – I don’t think that is the core of resilience. That would also not mean that we depoliticise crises because we no longer feel the necessity to address the underlying reasons for those crises. Successful adaptation to insecure circumstances similarly require fully understanding the shocks and crises, and thus addressing the underlying reasons and vulnerabilities.

The resilient subject might either be responsibilized, or be deprived of agency, and future research could dig deeper into this tension inherent in resilience: what kind of subjectivities does resilience actually create? And what is resilience’s relationship to its counterpart, vulnerability? And how far does resilience actually responsibilizes a person for his or her vulnerability? We must ensure that resilience is not abused by for example denying welfare benefits to those who have not adapted successfully enough.

When implementing resilience policies, as with any other policies, policymakers and practitioners must remain aware of the power play inherent in the processes from policy to practice. Although resilience seems to provide a common language that allows actors from various disciplines and different organisations to come together to work on issues that concern us all. Although resilience also evokes ideas of empowerment, of stimulating self-organization and entrepreneurship – it still needs to be seen whether resilience approaches are truly inclusive of the people whose resilience is at stake.

As a final comment, we know that buzzwords come and go. Resilience might disappear and be replaced by the next buzzword. Most of my interviewees nevertheless said they thought resilience will still hang around for a while. The main reason for saying so, was that they said that the resilience paradigm – if you can call it that – has really started to change the way they work. And considering that what we have been doing thus far hasn’t really worked, that may be a really welcome change.

A coin with only one side

These blogs are written in the context of a project I am working on about the politics of resilience governance of humanitarian emergencies (armed conflict) – based at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Now fully into this project, unpacking resilience has put me on a nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. For reference, my background is first of all in psychology (DSM-labels and lots and lots of SPSS) and public health (designing vaccination programmes for African children and lots of backpacking while you’re at it) to currently feeling somewhat of a political and moral philosopher (yikes!).

There are days that I believe resilience is the clear-cut answer to every one of the world’s problems – putting it on the same footing with – and yes, almost analogous to – empowerment, agency, and capacity-building. That the ‘Global South’ (the latest product of our quest for an ever less paternalistic name for ‘them’) needs us (the ‘heroic West’) to be empowered, we’ll just forget for the sake of convenience.

And then, there are days that I want to scream in frustration at the nastiness of the individuals who ever thought of introducing the idea of resilience, let alone making it a public policy priority. Please allow me to vent.

First of all, if resilience means that people should secure themselves (i.e. provide for their own security, safety) – does that not relieve the State of its one and only idiosyncratic duty on which the entire foundation for its existence is built? In Medieval times, did we not grow our crops with which we paid our taxes, so as to buy protection from a lord, who in turn ensured that our villages were not pillaged and our women not raped?

Of course that is a romanticized (yes, also naive) view, but is the ability to provide protection not an essential feature of a State as such? That is not necessarily only protection against violence, but also against ill-health, disaster, and sometimes against our own selves (did anyone else read that news article about Augsburg’s (Germany) traffic lights on the ground for those people who cannot bring themselves to detach their eyes from their smartphone screens before crossing the street?) [1]

Resilience seems to be all about the acceptance of the risks inherent to our ‘increasingly insecure world’. In other words, accepting whatever happens. Acceptance of potential disaster strikes me on the one hand as being, albeit pessimistically, realistic: disasters will be there. Whether they are earthquakes, outbursts of ethnic violence, or terrorist attacks, shocks are part of our existence.

Terrorist attacks (Beirut) are evidence of ‘the increasingly insecure world’ – but does that leave room for us to reflect on how we contribute to that insecurity? AP Photo/ Bilal Hussein

Then on the other hand, this rhetoric of acceptance may indeed be less Buddhist-spiritual than it sounds. Because accepting the inevitability of disaster can also be described as utterly fatalistic: there is no way that we can prevent disaster, whatever disaster is already happening we cannot solve, so better just to prepare, adapt, and ‘build back better’.

But how does that relate to, for example, the Rwandan genocide? Where Belgian colonial rule created a bogus ethnic divide that later caused a million brutal deaths – one of the most shameful episodes in humanitarian history? How can we tell ourselves to accept the risk of, and adapt to, genocide and mass human rights violations? Does that not relieve the initial act of creating circumstances under which violent outbursts become likely, of all scrutiny?

Towards the (even) more extreme, a neoliberal framing of resilience is one of ‘embracing’ disasters as (economic, what else?) opportunity. How do you tell a conflict-affected population that they should embrace war as an opportunity – an opportunity to re-create their society according to neoliberal forms of governance and democracy? Do we really want to venture into a (im)moral space where the continuous threat of human rights violations (torture, death, rape – to name just a few) is reframed into ‘economic opportunity’?

Taken from

As contemporary (Western) societies, we don’t ‘do’ negative emotions. When we are plagued by nightmares and recurrent flashbacks after a traumatic experience, we get ascribed the label post-traumatic stress disorder – which implies that we are now a dysfunctional human being, one that has to be ‘fixed’ with therapy and medication. When we mourn the death of a loved one a little longer than is socially accepted, we get ascribed the label ‘depression’, and are given pills to ‘cure’ us, as if mourning was a disease. Acceptance of the negative side of life (by allowing ‘negative’ emotions) is out of the question.

Resilience seems to fit into that same line of thinking, albeit in an extreme form. Because although on the outside it seems to advocate for accepting disaster and insecurity, it actually reframes hardship as (economic) opportunity. In other words, the negative is ultimately denied by transforming it into something positive. Not only are we no longer allowed to literally ‘be shocked’, we are also required instead to (immediately) make a profit out of the situation.

This seems demonstrative of an extreme neoliberal rationality of life: because the ‘negative’ is not profitable enough, we ought to transform it into a ‘positive’ from which can be gained, and as a result, the ‘negative’ ceases to exist. Yet that makes resistance to shocks and adaptation to shocks (resilience) the same: in neither case do we truly accept or allow the negative.

This has one critical implication. Not only can we no longer be ‘shocked’ by adverse circumstances; we are also relieved of the duty of being morally outraged about – in particular – man-made disasters. Because instead of viewing disaster (e.g. the refugee crisis) in terms of the human rights violations refugees are fleeing from, and who is to be held accountable, our gaze is directed to ‘how can we turn this situation into an economic opportunity?’ Indeed this coin has only one side.

By Victor Ndula,


Resilience: A possible game-changer?

These blogs are written in the context of a new project I am working on about the politics around resilience-focused policy responses to humanitarian emergencies (armed conflict) – based at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This is week 2.

Doing critical research on humanitarian action often leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there are stories like Linda Polman’s, who describes in her book War Games how a humanitarian fund of some 150 million USD for the rebuilding of an Afghan village, was spent on outsourcing the job to other organisations, as on each level a percentage was appropriated. Eventually, there were just about enough funds left to purchase inferior wood from neighbouring Pakistan, which then had to be transported to Afghanistan, where it was on site found out that the wood was too hard to use for building. It was chopped up for – rather expensive – firewood.

There are stories like Caroline Nordstrom’s, who narrates in Shadows of War how during the day, planes flown by Russian pilots are used to carry food aid parcels to communities in need, while at night those same planes, flown by the same pilots, transport weapons with which those same communities are terrorized. There are stories like Fiona Terry’s, who recounts in Condemned to Repeat? how the refugee camps erected in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) were militarized  and served as regrouping grounds for the architects of the Rwandan genocide – assisted by the international humanitarian community.

Complex environments. By Jean-clause Coutausse (1994, August) A Rwandan Hutu refugee camp in Kibumba, Zaire. (

Yes, we might all know the stories of the French NGO L’Arche de Zoé who kidnapped Chadian and Sudanese children in order to offer them up for adoption back in France. Or that of John Travolta, who flew his own Boeing 707 to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to deliver aid in the form of his fellow scientologists using ‘touch’ to heal injuries and disease. Stories of international organisations ‘luring away’ local staff in order to hire them at salaries higher than what local employers can provide, leaving the latter with empty hands. Or the presence of international organisations leading to skyrocketing rents, and the establishment of internationals-only entertainment facilities – yes, in warzones.

On the other hand, there are the heart-wrenching stories of those that want to help in the extreme environment of armed conflict. Organisations that stay, despite targeted attacks on their medical facilities, such as in Kunduz (Afghanistan), Idlib and Ma’aret al-Numan (Syria), Razeh (Yemen) – to name just a few. Stories like Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s, the Canadian head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda – who returned to Canada traumatised because the UN had been unwilling to provide UNAMIR with the means to prevent the genocide. In hostile environments, international organisations sometimes have to negotiate their staff’s safety with armed militias, because national and local governments are simply unable to provide the necessary security. Aid workers might say, we will condone a certain amount of aid diversion, as long as we can protect these people, deliver these food parcels, and provide these healthcare services.


MSF personnel assess the damage after the Kunduz hospital attack in Afghanistan. By David Smith (2015, November 25) Kunduz hospital attack: US forces did not act on MSF warnings for 17 min, The Guardian (

How do we close the gap between theoretical critiques and the complex reality on the ground? Indeed, why, John Borton of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) asked already before the turn of the millennium, do we focus on the negative effects of aid, exclude what others are doing – for example, armed militias, or multinational corporations involved in the illicit trade in diamonds and other scarce natural resources? In response, Fiona Terry writes: “the raison d’être of humanitarian assistance is the alleviation of suffering. If such action contradicts this purpose by causing harm, then a focus on [the harmful impact of aid] is indeed warranted” [1].

Could resilience be a game-changer? In this quagmire of moral dilemmas, resource constraints, poor coordination, organisational competitiveness, and perverse financial incentives, one might rightfully doubt the power of a mere concept such as resilience to transform humanitarian action and align its actions with its promises. But what if it is? Can resilience become a guide for improving humanitarian effectiveness? Let’s be careful not to fall prey to the Straw Man fallacy and attack the weakest version of resilience. Let’s apply the principle of charity and make a good case for resilience.

Resilience then, would not be about ‘leaving people to their own devices’, or ‘leaving them behind to fend for themselves’. In its strongest version, resilience would not be a neoliberal strategy that finds default in the individual’s adaptation and preparedness rather than in the violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors – that is not its essence. Resilience is also not about helping people find a higher round to climb, for when a tsunami strikes. It is not about helping people mapping out an escape route for when armed rebels launch an attack on their villages. It even seems that resilience is not about ‘teaching a man to fish’.

Instead, resilience seems to be about being aware of one’s human rights. Being aware of one’s political and civil rights, as well as one’s social, economic, and cultural rights. Resilience is about being able to hold government to account, in the case of violations of those rights. If the responsibility to protect is transferred from an unwilling or unable state to the international community, then they in turn also become accountable to their ‘beneficiaries’. Resilience should be about empowering people to demand the fulfilment of their rights, and the subsequent building up of political, economic, and social institutions, initiated by local governments and civil society, and assisted by international organisations. If the communities affected are excluded, then we might be able to (quite bluntly) say that humanitarian action amounts to nothing more than experimentation: “Experiments where human life is affected in unpredictable ways that are not accepted a priori by the subject are very problematic: they were a sign of colonialism in the past, and are often taken as such by their subjects today” [2].


Demanding human rights. By Reuters (2015, April 30) People  chant slogans during a protest demanding justice for Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist who was shot by gunmen, outside the Press Club in Karachi, Pakistan. (


[1] Fiona Terry (2002, p. 16) Condemned to repeat? The paradox of humanitarian action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[2] Oliver P. Richmond (2014, p. 124) Failed statebuilding: Intervention, the state, and the dynamics of peace formation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.