What Does a Humanitarian Double Standard Mean for Civilians?

Over at FPRI, where I am a non-resident fellow, I wrote about a troubling double standard in how human rights and other humanitarian organizations discuss rights violations in conflict zones. Specifically, they seem to reserve the vast majority of their opprobrium for the United States, while excusing other parties to conflict, including other governments:

There is a reflexive, open anti-Americanism from the aid group. The group proudly says it treats everyone at their hospitals, regardless of affiliation: Taliban, Boko Haram, civilian. They find moral courage in treating even “bad” people because of their belief in the humanitarian principle of treating all people equally… unless the U.S. is involved. One soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 has told me that one MSF facility refused to treat an injured child because she was brought to the hospital by U.S. troops. Their laudable commitment to medical ethics and political neutrality in war seems to falter when Americans get involved.

But reflexive anti-Americanism probably does not tell the whole story: plenty of aid groups are deeply skeptical, even mistrustful, of the U.S. military without displaying MSF’s double standards. Globally, the U.S. is held to a higher standard than any other party to conflict, partly as a consequence of America’s unmatched military power, partly because of American global economic and cultural dominance, and partly because of a general sense of anti-imperialism that influences many internationalists.

Now this does not excuse bad or even criminal conduct by the U.S., and rights groups are entirely within the right to condemn the U.S. when it commits heinous acts that violate the laws of war. But I’m just as curious as to why they won’t apply that standard even to other states involved in conflicts.

Take Russia. While the U.S. received instant, and sustained, international condemnation for its strike against an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Russia has attacked four hospitals in Syria, two of which are operated by MSF. Moreover, they have adopted the Assad regime’s approach of targeting ambulances and other first responders after bombings — the so-called “double tap” strike that many vociferously condemned when the U.S. did it in Pakistan. And the reaction to these deliberate, outrageous war crimes is… silence.

In its official statement about the strikes, MSF does not that medical facilities in Syria are under attack. However, rather than condemning Russia for bombing their hospitals, MSF instead chooses to note “all parties to this conflict” are “flouting international humanitarian law.” That’s a far cry from MSF’s reaction to Kunduz, where it said within hours of the attack that it was a war crime while demanding a UN investigation.

I don’t have a solid explanation for why so much of the humanitarian (and general, global) Left is so quick to condemn the United States and repeatedly, consistently soft pedals much more abusive regimes that deliberately commit illegal acts. I think part of it is a vaguely defined “anti-Imperialism,” though this explanation is inadequate. In Ukraine, as an example, Russia is clearly the imperialist power but that crowd still blames the U.S. for it.

So anti-Americanism is part of it. But that doesn’t explain everything, because often the humanitarian wing of the Left is one of the first to demand the U.S. unilaterally intervene in a conflict to somehow ease civilian suffering (like with Syria and Libya). So it’s not just a rote hatred of the U.S. that drives this one-sided criticism.

There is also this idea of holding the U.S. to a higher standard than anyone else in the world for various reasons (from our own stated ideals to the ideals other people somewhat cynically apply to the U.S. when circumstances warrant). But that, too, rings hollow, given how uncharitably the humanitarian Left treats any statement, investigation, or conclusion from the federal government. It almost rises to the level of journo-derp, requiring the belief that thousands of people can all lie in unison with no inconsistency, because otherwise it might paint the feds in a positive light and that’s just not possible.

So it’s a mystery to me as to why this double standard exists. Maybe it’s all of those reasons, combined to just general anger at the seemingly intractable conflicts that involve the U.S. I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that the double standard of only and uniquely criticizing the U.S. creates a horrifying environment where the one actor that exerts a huge amount of effort to attempt compliance with international humanitarian law (Lefty rhetoric aside, this is undeniable to any honest person) is the one actor most crippled by it.

The conundrum the humanitarian double standard represents is also apparent in the issue of targeted strikes against western citizens who voluntarily join terrorist groups. When a citizen joins a foreign army at war with his own government, there is no obligation under domestic or international law to respect his citizenship when attacking that army. He forfeits his protection by joining the opposing force. But when American citizens join al Qaeda, a non-state group literally at war with the US, many in the humanitarian Left think that citizen should still enjoy the protections afforded by his citizenship. It is an inversion of how the law actually works.

Similarly, when a terrorist group uses civilians as shields and attacks a state (say, the U.S. or Afghan governments) and that state responds in a way that harms or kills those civilians, the onus should be on the group illegally using civilian shields. But over the last fifteen years a shift has occurred whereby the state responding to an attack is now held responsible for the plight of civilians being illegally manipulated by a non-state actor. This, too, is an inversion of the law but it is where the conventional wisdom for the humanitarian Left is definitely moving.

Hospitals are a bit different. Under the Geneva Conventions (some sections of which the U.S. has not yet signed), they are given a much higher consideration than any other facility, and an attacking force faces a much higher standard for when it can even respond to an attack. And this is fine as far as it goes, at least if you can laugh off the idea of protecting a Taliban firing position inside a hospital as “inject[ing] a vital dose of humanity into the devastation of war,” as some present these conventions.

The end result of all of this work is that the U.S. (and other western states) are treated unfairly, to the detriment of civilians in conflict areas. This is a conclusion that cuts against the humanitarian Left conventional wisdom, but the logic is impossible to escape. When only western, liberal governments are held accountable for their conduct in war, and holding accountable other actors is hand waved away as futile or irrelevant, there is a grey area where one party to a conflict can violate the laws of war with impunity and another is tightly bound, unable to respond in kind. This has been the central frustration of the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where insurgents abuse the Geneva conventions at will and the rules of engagement meant to uphold them essentially cripple the capacity of the U.S. to respond effectively.

Instead of derping out on that last clause as a call for massacre (because it is not and you are a dishonest moron if you try to argue I mean it as such), consider whether this situation protects civilians or places them in greater harm by creating an informal norm that the “lesser” party to conflict feels it can successfully abuse civilians without legal or political consequence. At least so far, that seems to be precisely what happens: the discourse favors “revisionist” forces (defined at non-Western forces), and punishes “statist” forces that plays by the rules. And civilians suffer.

So with this double standard creating a gray zone, where does that leave the U.S.? Non-western parties to conflicts have managed to create a global political environment where they can rampantly violate international humanitarian law while also hiding behind it to try to escape reprisal. There isn’t an easy answer for this conundrum, since it is the outgrowth of several decades of evolution in thought concerning conflict, the laws of armed conflict, and global norms. But the consequence is that the U.S. is faced with a uniquely high expectation of its conduct while being sent into ever-less rules-abiding conflicts. One way or another, this double standard is going to be resolved, either by removing the requirement to adhere to international law or by finally holding others to account when they violate it. I suppose we can just pray it is the latter.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.