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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.