Zoe’s ark: the dangers of ‘DIY humanitarianism’

The 'kidnap' scandal involving a French charity in Chad is a product of the reckless self-righteousness of humanitarian interventionism.

Chris Bickerton

Topics World

On 25 October, a group of European aid workers were arrested in Abeche, eastern Chad. They were accused of child abduction after attempting to fly 103 children out of the country. The aid workers belonged to Zoe’s Ark, a French non-governmental organisation (NGO) founded by Eric Breteau, a charismatic French fireman (1).

The goal of the operation was to rescue the 103 children, understood to be orphans from Darfur, and to take them to France where host families had been found for them. The charity’s website stresses above all the moral emergency it has identified in Darfur and the need for the West to act. Its message is clear: ‘A child dies every five minutes in Darfur. In a year’s time, 800,000 will have died. Act now.’ (2)

What distinguishes Zoe’s Ark from other charitable organisations is its commitment to civil disobedience. Few of those involved seem to have known by how much the charity was intending to flout the law (3). There is no doubt, however, that Breteau made a virtue of his radicalism. Breteau argued that the priority should be saving the children, not respecting legal procedures. Once the children were safe in France, a dialogue could be opened up with the relevant authorities. ‘We start by taking the children out’, he explained. ‘Even if the discussions take four years, the children will be in safety.’ (4) This provoked concern in France, and Paris’ child protection squad interviewed Breteau and his treasurer in August 2007.

When the crisis first broke out, it was difficult to know exactly what had happened. Chad’s president, Deby Itno, accused the aid workers of running a paedophile NGO, or of planning to sell off the children’s organs. Since then, a simpler story seems to have emerged, of a few fanatical humanitarian activists carrying their moral fervour further than most. One French journalist, who had been covering the operation when he was arrested along with those responsible for carrying it out, has said that he was struck above all by the state of mind of the aid workers: ‘They were sure they were doing good, and had a mission to carry out.’

The reaction of the French authorities and of many of the NGOs operating in Chad and Darfur has been to distance themselves from the whole affair. Zoe’s Ark is being cast as a maverick operation, and many other aid organisations are lamenting the impact their actions have had on the aid effort in the region. One person working for the UN High Commission for Refugees complained that in recent days the situations in Adeche has soured: ‘People throw stones at us in the street. It has been a real setback.’ (5)

Such distancing is to be expected. But more interestingly, many have seen Zoe’s Ark as a sorry example of where humanitarian intervention has ended up. Leading figures, such as Rony Brauman, the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, chose not to blame Breteau’s fanaticism. Instead, Brauman targets his ire at the political establishment. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner is to blame, apparently, having irresponsibly labelled events in Darfur a genocide and recommended some kind of humanitarian intervention. Blame has also been laid at the door of Bernard Henri-Lévy, a French public intellectual who has also been active in drumming up support for intervention. According to Brauman, Kouchner and Henri-Lévy have been stoking up the moral fervour without being willing to act themselves (6).

The message here is that humanitarian intervention has been tarnished by its opportunistic alliance with Western militarism. The charge is that individuals such as Kouchner and Henri-Lévy have too often been willing to compromise on the facts in order to prompt Western governments into action. Darfur was therefore erroneously labelled a genocide, and casualty figures were grossly inflated by groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition in the US and Urgence Darfour in France. As a result, groups have sprung up – outside of the more regulated world of mainstream NGOS – and have taken such campaigns at their word. Children are being massacred, the United Nations Security Council is blocked by the Chinese and the Russians. Ergo, we must get in there ourselves and do what we can. This has been the philosophy of Zoe’s Ark: do-it-yourself humanitarianism.

There is some irony here: Kouchner launched his own political career by excoriating Western governments and aid organisations for their unwillingness to take sides in the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. Today, it is Kouchner’s own inaction as foreign minister – after being so vocal in calling for intervention when he was still a free-floating public figure – that has motivated groups such as Zoe’s Ark to get involved. Mainstream NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières are cautious now because they feel the humanitarian movement splintering, with mavericks on one side and those willing to follow the agenda of Western governments on the other. Such is the legacy of over a decade of humanitarian wars (7).

However, Kouchner and other humanitarian warriors also have a deeper role to play in this recent crisis. In the actions of Zoe’s Ark, we can see some of the basic tenets of humanitarian intervention played out in detail, albeit as farce this time rather than tragedy. Above all, there is the presumption that moral emergencies should trump any political or legal framework (8). This was the sentiment behind Kouchner’s doctrine of the ‘right to intervene’: moral imperative overrides the rights of sovereign states. A version of this theory was offered by one of the Zoe’s Ark aid workers interviewed by a French journalist. Asked where she got her legitimacy to ‘deracinate’ the children, the aid worker replied: ‘What legitimacy do they have to assassinate a people?’ (9) Presumably referring to the Sudanese government, her implication is clear: my right as an indignant individual is equal to that of a legally constituted government fighting a civil war. The ensuing crisis has revealed the arrogance of this claim.

The self-righteousness of the aid workers is fuelled by assumptions that events on the ground in Darfur are no more than the confluence of Arab barbarism and African innocence. In Chad, this presumption has been met with the reality of a country that refuses to play the part of backdrop to French moral outrage. In an interview, a lawyer for the Chadian government spelt out what is at stake. ‘Chad is a republic’, he explained. ‘It has its institutions, these institutions must be respected… Do you think there is no justice in Chad?’

The notion that legal right should give way to Western moral indignation has been challenged and exposed as an arrogant assumption. This should be a lesson not just for the naive and self-righteous aid workers of Zoe’s Ark, but for all those wedded to the tenets of humanitarian intervention.

Chris Bickerton is Stipendiary lecturer in International Politics at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press: 2007). (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Tara McCormack showed how Sudan is now a platform for French grandstanding. Phil Cunliffe said Darfur has been colonised by ‘peacekeepers’, while Brendan O’Neill argued it has been damned by pity. David Chandler asked if aid is more about aiding the West than ‘the rest’. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) See the Zoe’s Ark website

(2) Focus: Did they plot to steal African’s orphans of war?, The Observer, 4 November 2007

(3) Focus: Did they plot to steal African’s orphans of war?, The Observer, 4 November 2007

(4) Focus: Did they plot to steal African’s orphans of war?, The Observer, 4 November 2007

(5) Focus: Did they plot to steal African’s orphans of war?, The Observer, 4 November 2007

(6) Arche de Zoé: du mensonge à la faute, Jean-Phillipe Rémy, Le Monde, 3 November 2007. See also the video clip of Rony Brauman

(7) For more details, see the book published by Médecins Sans Frontières research director, Fabrice Weissman: In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action (Hurst: London) 2004.

(8) For an attempt by Bernard Kouchner to distance himself from what he calls a ‘humanitarianism without rules’, see this video clip

(9) See this video clip

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