Beyond the humanitarian/political divide: Witnessing and the making of humanitarian ethics

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Abstract

This essay examines how witnessing became encoded as an act of advocacy that may furnish a response to the plight of distant victims, and how it has impacted upon contemporary humanitarian ethics. By following the discourses and practices of witnessing elaborated by the French section of the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) since the late 1970s, the essay argues that witnessing helped transform a well-established humanitarian sensibility into a full-fledged humanitarian responsibility, which has been thoughtfully and systematically attentive to the pitfalls of transnational aid. The essay shows that when mobilized by individual and collective actors who strove to constitute themselves as subjects of moral conduct, witnessing took on disparate forms and rationalities that amounted neither to eye-witnessing nor simply to the public use of speech. It concludes by offering a reappraisal of the contemporary politics of humanitarianism, arguing that contemporary humanitarian ethics maintains dynamic and shifting relations with the political.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-75
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Human Rights
Volume10
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2011

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