North Americans and Europeans love to victimize people. We love to package the poor forsaken souls of the “third world” as “helpless”, in need of our savior, and of course as “innocent victims” who then essentially have no voice or control in their own lives. This is simply a fallacy that will lead to more destruction and violence in the long run.
One thing we often misunderstand is that there really are no “innocent victims”, except for maybe babies and small children (but then again, who’s to say of the evil they committed in womb or in their tiny minds??). There are people who have experienced misfortune in their lives. There are people who are poor. There are people who have had terrible things happen to them. To label a person as victim– in my opinion– only re-victimizes. It belittles their experience and makes the actor helpless. Takes away their control, their personal choice and agency in their own lives. Instead of being actors in their own life, they are merely pantomiming someone else’s script. That of their “saviour” who expects them to behave in a certain way to receive assistance.
Look to the very definition of the word “victim”:
- “one that is acted on* and usually adversely affected by a force or agent“
- “one that is injured, destroyed*, or sacrificed under any of various conditions”
- “one that is subjected to oppression*, hardship or mistreatment”
My grandmother used to tell me that someone can not oppress you unless you let them. Sure, they can enslave you. They can beat you senseless. They can make you do degrading and horrible things– but they can never oppress your mind unless you give them that power. It’s easy enough to say, but much harder to live under extreme conditions. Still, there is truth there. There are many who rise up out of what some would call extreme oppression and do not feel “oppressed”– crushed by the abuse of power— but rather they feel empowered by it. Enraged into action by it enough to even oppress their oppressors.
“Innocent” is also a relative term. Does a person deserve to be raped or tortured or killed because of their own wrongdoing or guilt? Does it matter the level of guilt or wrongdoing? Do they become more deserving of rape or torture if they say injure someone as opposed to simply lie about something? What if they severely injure someone, or even kill them? Do they deserve it then? Do they become deserving of death if they merely spout hatred or have racist feelings in their hearts? There is a scale of innocence that varies greatly depending on one’s background and belief system. If a person doesn’t injure, steal or hurt anyone directly, does that make the person completely uncorrupted? Completely without sin? Is one only a victim if they are completely “innocent”. Are they only worthy of assistance if they are uncorrupted?
Take for instance the Rwandan genocide in the mid-90s. Humanitarian aid poured in for the poor helpless refugees flooding into the neighbouring countries. Many of these “helpless refugees” were also mass murders who openly admitted their willing participation (page 25) in the slaughter of their countrymen. They were also dying by the thousands of dysentery, cholera, starvation and other such things and painted as “victims” to the outside world. Their innocence was played up with pictures of their young children beside them, their swollen bellies and sad stories of hardship. But were they all really “innocent”? Would they still have received our sympathy, our assistance and our money if we were told they were murderers? Did we really only “rescue” them so that they could continue to oppress and murder others in the future?
People can not be separated from their politics, but when it comes to those in disaster or war zones, we infantilize them and make them apolitical. We infantilize those in need to ease our own morality about helping them. In doing so, we further jeopardize the political situation that is happening on the ground. We take sides with the “victims”, even though they may be less “innocent” than their oppressors. We help them overcome their perhaps temporary “victimhood” allowing them to gain strength over their opponents. In doing so, we perhaps create more “victims” in the future.
Do we feel better about ourselves feeling that the “victims” we help are “innocent”? It certainly eases the mind. One wouldn’t want to think of giving a Hitler or a Pol Pot aid so that they can could continue their crimes, yet this type of thing does happen in humanitarianism.
So what’s the answer? How do we avoid making a further political or humanitarian nightmare while still assisting those who need help?
Lately, I’ve been reconsidering extreme non-intervention and wondering about the possibilities of such an action. It is intervention to militarily invade a country, but is it not also an intervention to take on the function of the government by providing services such as health care or education through the work of international NGOs? How much is humanitarian intervention really helping and how much is it really harming in the long run? Many NGOs are extremely corrupt and wasting money, but evade responsibility due to their so-called “philanthropic” spirit. Others can be compared to colonial imperialism (on page 60 and 243, also Chomskey and Delany among others ), justifying their takeover of a country on humanitarian grounds much as the colonial powers justified taking over Africa to “save” the poor “savages”.
Now I know that if tomorrow all humanitarian assistance were to be removed from trouble zones, massive chaos would erupt; but we also can’t expect them to stay forever either. So many governments now feel they can neglect their own people, knowing that NGOs and international assistance will come in and fill the gaps and that the international aid will continue to flow as they line their own pockets with little chastisement.
Instead of a government capable and willing to actually take care of its people, the population are left with a patchwork of services that are reliant on continual funding streams that may or may not be there in the coming years. Now those receiving assistance are perpetual “victims” in need of help, who will be reliant on handouts instead of their own capabilities (and they ARE capable). Instead of working towards securing small patches of land for these people, where they could grow their own food and be sustainably self-sufficient, NGOs rush in with handouts of western food assistance that only helps to continue western domination in agricultural markets.
So quick is the western world to jump to judgment of conflict in fledgling nations that are struggling to fully etch out their boundaries and constitutions, little remembering that their own struggles for independence were fraught with wars, slavery and massive human rights abuses. Let’s not forget that slavery was still alive and well in the US for nearly a century after independence and that its Manifest Destiny resulted in brutally conquering Mexicans, British settlers and Native Americans. And can we also not forget that American Independence came on a wave of warring and human rights abuses such as the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War of 1846-8, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears, the women’s suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement to name a few. And in Europe, the current nations were only made through war and rights abuses; the Battle of Trafalgar, the Finnish War, the Spanish Peninsular War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Belgian Revolution, the November Uprising in Poland, the Carlist Wars in Spain, the Spanish Inquisition, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, and even WWI and WWII.
But yet, we feel it necessary to rush in and chastise those fledgling countries for doing exactly what was done during our nation-building processes because we have suddenly decided on a new sense of morality? Nations have been built on human rights abuses and war, as opposing interests struggle to etch out their own ideas of how to control their country and homogenize their ideas through slaughter and suppression of the opposition. Yet, we expect so many countries, barely 50 or 60 years old and left with brutal, segregationist colonial legacies to set aside their differences and now live in harmony according to OUR standards? Sounds an awful lot like continued imperialism to me. Do as we say, not as we did.
These nations do not need our continued meddling. They need time to develop their own governments free from external pressure to “democratize” and create “free” markets. Interventionism has so far not really proven to create more human rights respecting states. If anything, many governments have become more corrupt on the western aid dime. We continue to fund many proven brutal dictators with vast streams of cash flow and no accountability so they can increase their power, while those in need suffer at their hands. Will the dictator be the one to pay the debt he incurred? Hardly. We then swoop in to “save” those who suffer, spending even more money in humanitarian ventures that will again help line the dictator’s pocket. How is this “helping” anyone?
It’s time to stop meddling and trying to “save” the “innocent” victims and instead looking to our own problems that may be helping to contribute to wars and human rights abuses in other parts of the world. The inequitable and unfair privilege of certain states or communities within the international community. The inequitable policies of the international financial organizations and trade organizations, based in and primarily backing the “richer” nations at a disadvantage to the “poorer” nations. The “richer” nations’ increasing need to consume and pollute the planet that will result in war and death across the globe. The increasing state repression and rescinding of rights that is being found in Canada, the US, and Europe. The discrimination, racism and slavery that still occur across Europe and North America. The North American, European and international systems are still far from being peaceful and respectful of rights, and perhaps we should clean up our own act before we judge others for theirs.