Skip to main content Accessibility help

Saving ourselves? On rescue and humanitarian action

  • Henry Radice (a1)

This article contributes to the international political theory of humanitarianism by unpicking the politics of humanitarian action’s simplest expression: saving human lives in the name of humanity. Both saving lives and defining notions of common humanity are closely interrelated acts of power. What saving a life means depends on a prior definition of humanity; humanitarians’ acts of rescue are the measure of their commitment to humanity. The politics of rescue and the politics of humanity are inextricably linked. The article explores four facets of this nexus. First, it considers the meanings of rescue, from saving bodies to saving lives, linked to contingent understandings of humanity. Second, it turns to the rescuers, for whom rescue performs particular functions, not least the need to preserve a sense of self. Third, it situates their often narcissistic motives in relation to the consequences of humanitarian action. Fourth, it addresses the power imbalance inherent in rescue and the problem of causing harm. It concludes that rescue is always an act of presumption, but one that can be tempered by humanitarian actors willing to embrace their role as ‘moral politicians’ (Walzer), aware of their power and their dirty hands, and open to contrasting understandings of humanity.

Corresponding author
*Corresponding author. Email:
Hide All

1 Gilbert, Martin, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (London: Transworld, 2002), p. xiv .

2 Malkki, Liisa H., The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), p. 231 .

3 Raed Al Saleh, ‘My staff are trying to save lives in the rubble of Ghouta. Who will help us?’, The Guardian (22 February 2018).

4 Barnett, Michael, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011) ; Barnett, Michael and Weiss, Thomas G., ‘Humanitarianism: a brief history of the present’, in Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (eds), Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (London: Cornell University Press, 2008) .

5 Three of the four ‘classic’ humanitarian principles, alongside humanity. Interestingly, where spontaneous humanitarianism becomes institutionalised, as with the White Helmets or Syria Civil Defence, to use their official name, they often draw on that classic package of humanitarian principles, as evidenced by Syria Civil Defence’s Charter of Principles. The point of this article is not to jettison the core humanitarian principles entirely, but rather to suggest that there is a prior level of analysis, in terms of understanding the ethico-political contours of humanitarianism, that is rarely explored. Syria Civil Defence, ‘Charter of Principles’, available at: {}.

6 Malkki, The Need to Help, p. 205.

7 In her major study of the political ethics of humanitarian INGOs, Jennifer Rubenstein argues plausibly that the social role of rescuer is both normatively problematic and too narrow to describe the actions of such agencies. However, my aim here is to focus on concepts, roles, and practices that are constitutive of the very idea of humanitarianism, and not to present an exhaustive account of the varied social roles humanitarians and humanitarian agencies embody. Rubenstein, Jennifer C., Between Samaritans and States: The Political Ethics of Humanitarian INGOs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 2933 . It is also important to note the title of one of the foundational texts of the international political theory of humanitarian intervention, by Michael Walzer. It does not, however, really engage with the actual relationship of rescue – focusing instead on the decision to intervene or not. Michael Walzer, ‘The politics of rescue’, Social Research, 62:1 (1995).

8 A much-cited quote from IR’s urtext on military humanitarian intervention is: ‘humanitarian intervention exposes the conflict between order and justice at its starkest’. Wheeler, Nicholas J., Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 11 .

9 See, for instance, ‘R2P breaks new ground in coming to the rescue’. Weiss, Thomas G., Humanitarian Business (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 152 . The phrase ‘rescue fantasies’ comes, significantly in the light of Edward Luck’s former role as Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, from Luck, Edward C. and Zaret Luck, Dana, ‘The individual Responsibility to Protect’, in Sheri P. Rosenberg, Tibi Galis, and Alex Zucker (eds), Reconstructing Atrocity Prevention (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 215 . Cited in Brigg, Morgan, ‘Humanitarian symbolic exchange: Extending Responsibility to Protect through individual and local engagement’, Third World Quarterly, 39:5 (2018), p. 844 . The idea, building on Charles Taylor’s work on social imaginaries, of emergency imaginaries within humanitarian action, is outlined in Craig Calhoun, ‘The imperative to reduce suffering: Charity, progress, and emergencies in the field of humanitarian action’, in Barnett and Weiss (eds), Humanitarianism in Question; Craig Calhoun, ‘The idea of emergency: Humanitarian action and global (dis)order’, in Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi (eds), Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

10 Wheeler, Saving Strangers, p. 34.

11 Cases such as Kurdi’s should, I think, make us slightly queasy at the somewhat mechanistic, abstracted way in which the ‘Shallow Pond theorists’, to borrow Kwame Anthony Appiah’s phrase, draw on archetypes of drowned children or other stylised examples of suffering to make their points. A famous example is of course Peter Singer’s classic ‘Famine, affluence and morality’. See Anthony Appiah, Kwame, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), p. 173 ; Singer, Peter, ‘Famine, affluence, and morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1:3 (1972) . On the danger of omitting nuance from moral reasoning, see Brown, Chris, ‘Poverty alleviation, global justice, and the real world’, Ethics & International Affairs, 31:3 (2017) . The bigger problem, which admittedly I may be reproducing here in referring to Kurdi, is powerfully set out in Razack, Sherene H., ‘Stealing the pain of others: Reflections on Canadian humanitarian responses’, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 29:4 (2007) .

12 On the humanitarian-security nexus on Europe’s border, and how the functions of saving and policing, rescuing and catching often intermingle, see Andersson, Ruben, ‘Migration’, in Tim Allen, Anna Macdonald, and Henry Radice (eds), Humanitarianism: A Dictionary of Concepts (London: Routledge, 2018) . On calls for safe passage to Europe, see Joanne Liu, ‘EU: Your Fences Kill. Provide Safe and Legal Passage’ (2015), available at: {}.

13 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998). See also Nyers, Peter, Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 3641 , 84–5.

14 Geras is not referring specifically to Agamben. But Geras’s phrase and Levi’s riposte capture the issues perfectly. Geras, Norman, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust (London: Verso, 1998), p. 100 .

15 Ibid.

16 Mary B. Anderson, ‘Aid: a mixed blessing’, Development in Practice, 10:3 (2000).

17 ‘“You save my life today, but for what tomorrow?” Some dilemmas of humanitarian aid’, in Jonathan Moore (ed.), Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), p. 151.

18 Laqueur, Thomas W., ‘Mourning, pity, and the work of narrative in the making of “humanity”’, in Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown (eds), Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) .

19 On memory and humanitarianism, see Rachel Ibreck, ‘Memory’, in Allen, Macdonald, and Radice (eds), Humanitarianism.

20 On MSF and témoignage, see DeChaine, D. Robert, Global Humanitarianism: NGOs and the Crafting of Community (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), pp. 8290 .

21 Cited in Orbinski, James, An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches from the Medical Frontline (London: Rider, 2009), p. 290 , emphasis added.

22 The list is evolving, but a good account can be found in Nussbaum, Martha C., Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 7086 . Her list consists of: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; relationship with other species; play; control over one’s political and material environment.

23 See also Nussbaum, Martha C., Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (London: Belknap Press, 2013) .

24 Phillips, Anne, The Politics of the Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 18 .

25 On sacrifice and triage, see Peter Redfield, ‘Sacrifice, triage, and global humanitarianism’, in Barnett and Weiss (eds), Humanitarianism in Question.

26 On how humanitarianism can aggravate the issues by dehistoricising and depoliticising refugees, see Malkki, Liisa H., ‘Speechless emissaries: Refugees, humanitarianism, and dehistoricization’, Cultural Anthropology, 11:3 (1996) .

27 Moorehead, Caroline, Human Cargo: A Journey among Refugees (London: Vintage, 2006) .

28 Terry, Fiona, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (London: Cornell University Press, 2002) ; Power, Samantha, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World (London: Penguin, 2008) .

29 Again, a negative articulation: ‘suffering things that no people ought to suffer’. Rosenblatt, Roger, ‘Introduction to rescue: the paradoxes of virtue’, Social Research, 62:1 (1995), p. 6 .

30 See, for instance, Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2005) .

31 On Gladstone’s nocturnal rescue missions, see Jenkins, Roy, Gladstone: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 100115 ; Isba, Anne, Gladstone and Women (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006), pp. 99121 . On the Bulgarian episode, see Finnemore, Martha, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 6263 ; Jenkins, Gladstone, pp. 399–414; Shannon, Richard, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation 1876 (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1963) .

32 Laqueur, ‘Mourning, pity, and the work of narrative in the making of “humanity”’, p. 35.

33 Bass, Gary J., Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Knopf, 2008), p. 78 .

34 Calhoun, ‘The imperative to reduce suffering’, p. 79; Calhoun, ‘The idea of emergency’.

35 Rieff, David, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (London: Vintage, 2002), pp. 9193 .

36 Calhoun, ‘The imperative to reduce suffering’.

37 Rieff, A Bed for the Night, pp. 91–2.

38 Ibid., p. 86.

39 Hopgood, Stephen, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (London: Cornell University Press, 2006) ; Hopgood, Stephen, ‘Moral authority, modernity and the politics of the sacred’, European Journal of International Relations, 15:2 (2009) .

40 Laura Hammond, ‘The power of holding humanitarianism hostage and the myth of protective principles’, in Barnett and Weiss (eds), Humanitarianism in Question, p. 189.

41 Renwick Monroe, Kristen, The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice During the Holocaust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 97 . For a study of religious cultures and acts of rescue, see Oliner, Pearl M., Saving the Forsaken: Religious Culture and the Rescue of Jews in Nazi Europe (London: Yale University Press, 2004) .

42 Monroe, The Hand of Compassion, p. 287.

43 Nardin, Terry, ‘Introduction’, in Terry Nardin and Melissa S. Williams (eds), Humanitarian Intervention, Nomos XLVII (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 10 . A debate between Fernando Tesón and Terry Nardin in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq usefully fleshes out these issues. Nardin, Terry, ‘Humanitarian imperialism’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:2 (2005) ; Tesón, Fernando R., ‘Ending tyranny in Iraq’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:2 ; Tesón, Fernando R., ‘Of tyrants and empires’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:2 (2005) . For a summary of debates on motives and intentions in the context of humanitarian intervention, see Lang, Anthony F. Jr, ‘Humanitarian intervention’, in Patrick Hayden (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Ethics and International Relations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 138141 . See also Pattison, James, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 153180 .

44 Stephen Hopgood, ‘Saying “no” to Wal-Mart? Money and morality in professional humanitarianism’, in Barnett and Weiss (eds), Humanitarianism in Question.

45 Hopgood, ‘Moral authority, modernity and the politics of the sacred’. See also Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame.

46 ‘Moral intention’ is ambiguous in this context, probably best read as relating to motive. James Orbinski, ‘Nobel Lecture’ (10 December 1999).

47 Rony Brauman, ‘Masterclass: A Review of the Last Two Decades of Humanitarian Assistance’, paper presented at the ‘Who are the Humanitarians Now?’ seminar, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, 24 November 2009.

48 Wheeler, Saving Strangers, p. 47.

49 Monroe, The Hand of Compassion, p. 91.

50 Ibid., p. 95.

51 Ibid., p. 180.

52 Ibid., p. 237.

53 Ibid., pp. 265–6.

54 Malkki, Liisa H., The Need to Help. Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (London: Hurst & Co., 2015), pp. 1314 .

55 Wheeler, Saving Strangers.

56 Brown, Chris, ‘The antipolitical theory of Responsibility to Protect’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5:4 (2013) .

57 American soldier in Vietnam, cited in Rieff, A Bed for the Night, p. 258.

58 Anderson, ‘“You save my life today, but for what tomorrow?”’.

59 Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – or War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999).

60 ‘Engender’ in every sense; witness recent revelations about high-profile INGOs including Oxfam and Save the Children. See also Read, Róisín, ‘Embodying difference: Reading gender in women’s memoirs of humanitarianism’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 12:3 (2018) .

61 Walzer, Michael, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1994), p. 16 .

62 Luban, David, ‘The romance of the nation-state’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 9:4 (1980) ; Walzer, Michael, ‘The moral standing of states: a response to four critics’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 9:3 (1980) .

63 On restorative rescue, see Pasic, Amir and Weiss, Thomas G., ‘The politics of rescue: Yugoslavia’s wars and the humanitarian impulse’, Ethics & International Affairs, 11 (1997) .

64 de Waal, Alex, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: J. Currey, 1997), p. 221 .

65 de Waal, Alex, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (Cambridge: Polity, 2017) .

66 Mégret, Frédéric, ‘Beyond the “salvation” paradigm: Responsibility to Protect (others) vs the power of protecting oneself’, Security Dialogue, 40:6 (2009) .

67 Rieff, A Bed for the Night, p. 22.

68 Ibid., p. 304.

69 Ibid., p. 216.

70 Orbinski, ‘Nobel Lecture’.

71 The Rescuer Otto also notes this. ‘On my medal, the Yad Vashem Medal, there is an inscription. It says, “Whoever saves one life, he has saved the entire humanity.” And I think the inversion of that is also true. Whoever kills one innocent human being, it is as if he has killed the entire world.’ Monroe, The Hand of Compassion, p. 88.

72 Slim, Hugo, ‘Violence and humanitarianism: Moral paradox and the protection of civilians’, Security Dialogue, 32:3 (2001), p. 337 .

73 Barnett, Empire of Humanity.

74 Doyle, Michael W., ‘A few words on Mill, Walzer, and nonintervention’, Ethics & International Affairs, 23:4 (2009), p. 354 .

75 Walzer, Michael, ‘Political action: the problem of dirty hands’, in David Miller (ed.), Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 284 .

76 de Torrente, Nicolas, ‘Humanitarian action under attack: Reflections on the Iraq War’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 17 (2004), p. 9 .

77 Brown, Chris, ‘Tragedy, “tragic choices” and contemporary international political theory’, International Relations, 21:1 (2007) .

78 de Waal, Alex, ‘The humanitarians’ tragedy: Escapable and inescapable cruelties’, Disasters, 34:s2 (2010) .

79 Cited in Smillie, Ian and Minear, Larry, The Charity of Nations: Humanitarian Action in a Calculating World (Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2004), p. 1 .

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
  • EISSN: 1469-9044
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-international-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed