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Non-human humanitarians

  • Benjamin Meiches (a1)


The study of humanitarian intervention typically focuses on the human victims and saviours in armed conflict and natural disasters. Moreover, explanations of the virtues of humanitarian norms and ethics emphasise the importance of the university of suffering and the empathic nature of humanitarian efforts. In contrast, this article explores the neglected world of ‘non-human humanitarians’. Specifically, the article outlines three cases of non-human actors that expand and complicate international humanitarian practices: dogs, drones, and diagrams. Drawing on new materialist and posthuman literatures, the article argues that non-humans possess distinct capacities that vastly expand and transform humanitarian efforts in ranging from relief, to medicine, to conflict resolution. Highlighting non-human humanitarians thus offers a new perspective on the resources available for redressing mass violence and conflict, but also complicates existing definitions of humanitarian norms. To the contrary, the article demonstrates that non-humans often maximise humanitarian services to a degree greater than their human counterparts, but have also introduced changes into humanitarian practices that have problematic unintended consequences. Non-human humanitarians reveals previously discounted participants in international politics and the key roles they play in various international interventions.

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Cite this article: Meiches B. 2018. Non-human humanitarians. Review of International Studies X: 1–19, doi:10.1017/S0260210518000281



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1 Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 2015); Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Ignatieff, Michael, The Rights Revolution (House of Anansi, 2007); Power, Samantha, ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

2 Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012); Agier, Michel, Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government, trans. David Fernbach (Malden: Polity, 2011); Fassin, Didier, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Orford, Anne, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

3 Baer, Daniel, ‘The ultimate sacrifice and the ethics of humanitarian intervention’, Review of International Studies, 37:1 (2011), pp. 301326 ; Lisle, Debbie, ‘Humanitarian travels: Ethical communication in Lonely Planet guidebooks’, Review of International Studies, 34:1 (2008), pp. 155172 ; Belloni, Robert, ‘The trouble with humanitarianism’, Review of International Studies, 33:3 (2007), pp. 451474 ; Edkins, Jenny, ‘Humanitarianism, humanity, human’, Journal of Human Rights, 2:2 (2003), pp. 253258 .

4 Critiques of humanitarianism vary, but consistently expose the power relations that enable humanitarian aid. Mamdani, Mahmood, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010); Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention; Douzinas, Costas, Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007).

5 Frost, Samantha, Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New theory of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), pp. 1726 .

6 The literature on this is growing. See Morton, Tim, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

7 The literature making these claims is growing and includes scholars from multiple disciplines: Kohn, Eduardo, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Sagan, Dorian, Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Haraway, Donna J., When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

8 For a sample of the literature, see Burke, Anthony et al., ‘Planet politics: a manifesto for the end of IR’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 44:3 (2016), pp. 499523 ; Fishel, Stefanie, The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Mitchell, Audra, ‘Only human? A worldly approach to security’, Security Dialogue, 45:1 (2014), pp. 521 ; Cudworth, Erika and Hobden, Stephen, Posthuman International Relations: Complexity, Ecologism and Global Politics (New York: Zed Books, 2011).

9 See, for example, the study of AK-47s, corpses, and trash as everyday international objects. Shah, Nisha, ‘Gunning for war: Infantry rifles and the calibration of lethal force’, Critical Studies on Security, 5:1 (2017), pp. 81104 ; Auchter, Jessica, ‘Paying attention to dead bodies: the future of security studies?’, Journal of Global Security Studies, 1:1 (2016), pp. 3650 ; Acuto, Michele, ‘Everyday International Relations: Garbage, grand designs, and mundane matters’, International Political Sociology, 8:4 (2014), pp. 345362 ; Barry, Andrew, ‘The translation zone: Between actor-network theory and International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 41:3 (2013), pp. 413429 ; Nexon, Daniel H. and Pouliot, Vincent, ‘“Things of networks”: Situating ANT in International Relations’, International Political Sociology, 7:3 (2013), pp. 342345 ; Bueger, Christian, ‘Actor-network theory, methodology, and international organization’, International Political Sociology, 7:3 (2013), pp. 338342 .

10 This is with the obvious exception of the late Lisa Smirl, whose brilliant work on humanitarian space this article is deeply indebted to. Smirl, Lisa, Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism (London: Zed Books, 2015).

11 Coole, Dianne, ‘Agnetic capacities and capacious historical materialism: Thinking with new materialisms in the political sciences’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 41:3 (2013), pp. 4564561 .

12 Warren, Cat, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (New York: Touchstone, 2015); Hare, Brian and Woods, Vanessa, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think (New York: Plume, 2013); Horowitz, Alexandra, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner, 2009).

13 Wolfe, Cary, Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 5456 .

14 Weisbord, Merrily and Kachanoff, Kim, Dogs with Jobs: Working Dogs Around the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

15 Bourne, Mike, Johnson, Heather, and Lisle, Debbie, ‘Laboratizing the border: the production, translation and anticipation of security technologies’, Security Dialogue, 46:4 (2015), pp. 307325 .

16 Haraway, Donna, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, ed. Matthew Begelke (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

17 Sargisson, Rebecca J. et al., ‘Environmental determinants of landmine detection by dogs: Findings from a large-scale study in Afghanistan’, Research and Development: The Journal of ERW and Mine Action, 16:2 (2012), pp. 7480 ; Goth, Ann, McLean, Ian G., and Trevelyan, James, ‘Odour detection: the theory and practice’, in Mine Detection Dogs: Training, Operations and Odour Detection (Geneva: Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, 2003), pp. 195208 .

18 Cudworth, Erika and Hobden, Steve, ‘The posthuman way of war’, Security Dialogue, 46:6 (2015), pp. 517522 ; Goth, McLean, and Trevelyan, ‘Odour detection’, pp. 196–7.

19 Sargisson et al., ‘Environmental determinants of landmine detection by dogs’; Ron Verhagen et al., ‘Preliminary results on the curse of cricetomys rats as indicators of buried explosives in field conditions’, in Mine Detection Dogs, pp. 175–94.

20 Sargisson et al., ‘Environmental determinants of landmine detection by dogs’, pp. 74–6.

21 Habib, Maki, ‘Mine clearance techniques and technologies for effective humanitarian demining’, Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction, 6:1 (2002), p. 63 .

22 Hayner, Dan, ‘The evolution of mine detection dog training’, Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction, 7:1 (2003), p. 72 .

23 Grove, Jairus, ‘An insurgency of things: Foray into the world of improvised explosive devices’, International Political Sociology, 10:4 (2016), pp. 332351 .

24 Holmqvist, Caroline, Policing Wars: On Military Intervention in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 36 ; Jabri, Vivienne, War and the Transformation of Global Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 94136 .

25 Faust, Anthony A. et al., ‘Observations on military exploitation of explosives detection technologies’, Detection and Sensing of Mines, Explosive Objects and Obscured Targets, 8017:16 (2011).

26 Eyal Weizman explores how the logic of the lesser paradoxically produces and expands violence in humanitarianism. Weizman, Eyal, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 617 .

27 The Marshall Legacy, ‘Mine Detection Dogs | The Marshall Legacy Institute’, available at: {} accessed 15 March 2017.

28 Habib, ‘Mine clearance techniques and technologies for effective humanitarian demining’, pp. 63–4, emphasis added.

29 Marshall Legacy, ‘Mine Detection Dogs’.

30 On the affective dimensions of non-human animals and their political lessons, see Massumi, Brian, What Animals Teach Us About Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

31 Horsley, Tycie, ‘Child-to-child risk education’, Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction, 19:2 (2015), pp. 3234 .

32 Kennedy, David, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 336 .

33 This is an emerging debate. See Himes, Kenneth R., Drones and the Ethics of Targeted Killing (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Brunsetter, Daniel and Braun, Megan, ‘The implications of drones on the just war tradition’, Ethics & International Affairs, 25:3 (2011), pp. 337358 ; Coeckelbergh, Mark, ‘Drones, information technology, and distance: Mapping the moral epistemology of remote fighting’, Ethics and Information Technology, 15:2 (2013), pp. 8798 .

34 Williams, John, ‘Distant intimacy: Space, drones, and just war’, Ethics & International Affairs, 29:1 (2015), pp. 93110 ; Walters, William, ‘Drone strikes, dingpolitik and beyond: Furthering the debate on materiality and security’, Security Dialogue, 45:2 (2014), pp. 101118 .

35 For an overview, see Shaw, Ian G. R., Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

36 Gregory, Derek, ‘From a view to a kill: Drones and late modern war’, Theory, Culture & Society, 28:7–8 (2011), p. 192 .

37 Ibid., pp. 190–1.

38 Chamayou, Grégoire, A Theory of the Drone, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: The New Press, 2015), pp. 167176 . Chamayou’s rich work on the drone actually offers an interesting point of contrast in critical discourse on non-humans. In an earlier piece, in an effort to describe the role the drone increasingly takes in contemporary warfare he embraces a curious line: ‘[The drone] is the mechanical, flying and robotic heir of the dog of war.’ In a rich footnote, Chamayou notes the privileged place dogs of war are often afforded in cynegetic politics. However, in relation to this piece, he does not comment on the rich presence of the non-human as more than metaphor in the unfolding of armed conflict. In this sense, the previous commentary on demining also retrieves the tracking capacities of non-human dogs for the purposes of addressing the excesses of armed conflict. Perhaps Chamayou’s somewhat figurative statement ignores that the affects of the war dog likely produced very different configurations of political space and violence than the modern drones. Chamayou, Gregoire, ‘The manhunt doctrine’, Radical Philosophy, 169 (2011), p. 4 .

39 Wilcox, Lauren, ‘Embodying algorithmic war: Gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare’, Security Dialogue, 48:1 (2017), pp. 1128 ; Gusterson, Hugh, Drone: Remote Control Warfare (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016).

40 Agamben, Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 6 .

41 Apuuli, Kasaija Philip, ‘The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in United Nations peacekeeping: the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo’, ASIL, 18:13 (2014), pp. 15 .

42 Karsrud, John and Rosén, Frederik, ‘In the eye of the beholder? UN and the use of drones to protect civilian’, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 2:2 (2013), pp. 110, 27 .

43 For a brilliant description of how humanitarian compounds and vehicles securitise humanitarians see Smirl, Spaces of Aid, pp. 4–7.

44 Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, pp. 114–26.

45 Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, pp. 1–21; Sharon Siwinski, ‘The aesthetics of human rights’, Culture, Theory and Critique, 1 (2009), pp. 23–39.

46 Sandvik, Kristin Bergtora and Lohne, Kjersti, ‘The rise of the humanitarian drone: Giving content to an emerging concept’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 43:1 (2014), pp. 157160 .

47 David Pilling, ‘UK company develops edible drones to feed hungry’, Financial Times, available at: {} accessed 14 March 2017; ‘This is the world’s first edible, humanitarian drone’, Business Insider, available at: {} accessed 16 March 2017.

48 Allinson, Jamie, ‘The necropolitics of drones’, International Political Sociology, 9:2 (2015), pp. 113127 .

49 Pilling, ‘UK company develops edible drones to feed hungry’.

50 Bully, Dan, ‘Inside the tent: Community and government in refugee camps’, Security Dialogue, 45:1 (2014), pp. 6380 ; Hailey, Charlie, Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009); Lischer, Sarah Kenyon, Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

51 For repetition of this theme, see Agier, Managing the Undesireables; Agamben, Homo Sacer; Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).

52 Feigenbaum, Anna, Frenzel, Fabian, and McCurdy, Patrick, ‘Protest camps’, in Mark Salter (ed.), Making Things International 2: Catalysts and Reactions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 4962 ; Barder, Alexander D., ‘Barbed wire’, in Salter (ed.), Making Things International 2, pp. 3248 ; Folkers, Andreas and Marquardt, Nadine, ‘Tent’, in Salter (ed.), Making Things International 2, pp. 6378 ; Redfield, Peter, ‘Vital mobility and the humanitarian kit’, in Andrew Lakoff and Stephen J. Collier (eds), Biosecurity Interventions: Global Health and Security in Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 147172 .

53 Shelter Working Group-Jordan, ‘T-Shelter for Azraq Refugee Camp’ (UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 16 March 2015), available at: {} accessed 15 August 2017.

54 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), pp. 195230 .

55 UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, Global Strategy for Settlement and Shelter: A UNHCR Strategy 2014–2018 (Division of Programme Support and Management, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2014).

56 Hailey, Camps, pp. 16–18.

57 Suzan Ilcan and Kim Rygiel demonstrate how even the capacities to resist the camp environment often extend political control of the camps. See ‘“Resiliency humanitarianism”: Responsibilizing refugees through humanitarian emergency governance in the camp’, International Political Sociology, 9 (2015), pp. 333–51; Bully, ‘Inside the tent’, pp. 67–70.

58 UNHCR, Global Strategy for Settlement and Shelter, p. 19, emphasis added.

59 Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 54 .

60 Johnson, Heather L., Borders, Asylum and Global Non-Citizenship: The Other Side of the Fence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 8082 .

61 UNHCR, Global Strategy for Settlement and Shelter, p. 22, emphasis added.

62 Meiches, Benjamin, ‘A political ecology of the camp’, Security Dialogue, 46:5 (2015), pp. 488490 .

63 Ramadan, Adam, ‘Spatialising the refugee camp’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38:1 (2013), pp. 6577 .

64 Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, pp. 3–9.

65 Johnson, Borders, Asylum and Global Non-Citizenship, pp. 21–31. See also Malkki, Liisa, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

66 Shelter Working Group-Jordan, ‘Site Planning and Shelter Camp Restructure Project: Za’atari Refugee Camp-Mafraq’ (UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, 29 June 2016), available at: {} accessed 16 August 2017.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69 Weizman, Eyal, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (Boston: Zone Books, 2017).

70 On self-organization of urban spaces, see De Landa, Manuel, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997), pp. 25102 ; on the emergence of self-organized camps, see Agier, Managing the Undesireables, pp. 41–58.

71 Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, p. 3.

72 Boyarin, Jonathan, Storms of Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 86 .

73 Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), pp. 118119 .

74 Agier, Managing the Undesireables, pp. 3–11.

75 Derrida, Jacques, ‘Hostipitality’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 5:3 (2002), pp. 318 .

76 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 185.

Cite this article: Meiches B. 2018. Non-human humanitarians. Review of International Studies X: 1–19, doi:10.1017/S0260210518000281

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