Humanitarian Aid or Feeding Tyranny:The Need to Politicize International Aid

According to its now classic articulation in the Fundamental Principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross, humanitarian action is above politics and concerned only with bringing relief to those most in need.

According to its now classic articulation in the Fundamental Principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross, humanitarian action is above politics and concerned only with bringing relief to those most in need. Not only should aid be given without discrimination as to an individual's "nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions," but that decisions regarding assistance should be guided by need alone, rather than on distinctions between "good" and "bad" beneficiaries, much less collateral concerns. In short, the idea was that humanitarianism, by definition a "good," ought to be thoroughly depoliticized. Unfortunately, this theory, while morally edifying and psychologically satisfying, disregards certain verities about human nature. Man, as Aristotle once observed, is by nature a political animal. Any social arrangement that presupposes the contrary is, at best, unrealistic.

The current controversy over the "Oil-for-Food" program run by the United Nations Secretariat is, among other things, a salutary lesson on the risks run when a policy is depoliticized. The program, run by the UN from 1996 to 2003, was supposed to be a humanitarian undertaking, a means to feed the hungry children of Iraq until Saddam Hussein came to terms with the demands of the international community. Originally proposed in the early 1990s by then UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar, the "Oil-for-Food" scheme was authorized as a "temporary measure" by Security Council Resolution 986 in 1995. The UN Secretariat, then led by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, implemented the program on terms exceptionally favorable to the Ba‘athist regime in Bagdad-to say nothing of the UN which received a 3 percent commission (estimated to have been eventually worth $2 billion) on every barrel of oil sold. At least initially motivated by reports-subsequently revealed as exaggerated by Saddam's propaganda machine-that the international sanctions imposed on Iraq following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait were causing severe suffering among ordinary Iraqis, "Oil-for-Food" was regarded as a humanitarian program and, except for an occasional peek by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, went essentially unsupervised by the Security Council. The lack of political debate and scrutiny, as it turns out, led, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Claudia Rosett, to "not only the biggest but the most extravagant, hypocritical and blatantly perverse relief program ever administered by the UN."

While "Oil-for-Food" was ended last year when, after the fall of Saddam, the Security Council voted to lift sanctions on Iraq and several investigations into the program are presently underway, the same absence of scrutiny and discussion still characterize a number of international and national policies covered under the label "humanitarian." One of these-perhaps the one most in need of a more critical examination-is the one benefiting Saddam's fellow member in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," North Korea's Kim Jong-Il.

When an explosion-apparently caused by the careless shunting about of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer in order to clear a path for the passage home of the country's reclusive "Dear Leader" from a trip to Beijing-shook the Ryongchon railway station near the Chinese border on April 22 and killed over one hundred civilians, the immediate U.S. response was to pledge some $100,000 aid. Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Colin Powell even asserted that: "this offer stands on its own merits. This is a humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the people of North Korea." The Secretary explicitly noted that he saw U.S. interests "separately and distinct from this humanitarian issue." This stance is, in fact, consistent with American policy towards the communist country since the Clinton Administration. Last year alone, the U.S. provided the country with over 100,000 metric tons in food aid.

That there have been food shortages in North Korea since the early 1990s, which reached famine proportions a few years later, is not news. Reports suggest that up to three million people died from starvation and related illnesses between 1995 and 1998. Despite the fact that the regime used heavy flooding in 1995 as a pretext to make an unprecedented appeal for international assistance, the roots of the crisis are man-made, not natural. The country's policy of juche, or self-reliance, pioneered by Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il-Sung, the country's dead but constitutionally "Eternal Leader," led to the collectivization of agricultural production into a leviathan that required increasing industrial inputs and power and contributed to environmental decay. Despite the rhetoric about self-reliance, North Korea was entirely dependent upon a highly concessionary trade balance with the Soviet bloc that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the country without access to international credit markets. In short order, the communist country found itself caught in a vicious cycle where lack of foreign currency restricted its capacity to purchase fuel and other materials necessary for the manufacture of export goods that would generate foreign currency. Without this foreign exchange, the state was cut off from the fuel, fertilizer and spare parts necessary to support the collectivized agriculture.