‘A few not too troublesome restrictions’: Humanitarianism, Solidarity, Anti-militarism, Peace

by | 22 Nov 2022

What might Rosa Luxemburg’s thinking help us see about humanitarian efforts? What might it reveal for our understanding of the work of international law in both restraining and allowing organised violence, as well as responding to its humanitarian consequences? Within the context of ongoing calls for greater solidarity in humanitarian action, how might the themes of anti-militarism and solidarity in Luxemburg’s work add additional layers to our thinking? What might pacifism and anti-militarism mean in an unjust and abusive world that also demands solidarity as well as emergency aid?

International Humanitarian Law as biding time in the hope of better things, or as a ‘pitiful half-measure’?

Samuel Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War provides a provocation for thinking about militarism, pacifism, and international law, showing the continued relevance of such questions. The book explores whether the attempts of international humanitarian law (IHL) to make armed conflict more humane has implied legitimating and entrenching war, necessarily sacrificing an anti-war critique. Moyn argues that ‘reformers’ (which must include international lawyers) ‘shifted their attention from opposing the crime of war to opposing war crimes, with fateful consequences’.

In her keynote lecture, Dana Mills spoke relatedly of human rights lawyer Michael Sfard’s 2021 book The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights, and the dilemma for human rights defenders between struggling against a larger problem (in this case, the wall) and working within the system to make small improvements in the here and now (in this case, a gate in the wall), which might inadvertently make more difficult the future achievement of more significant change – ‘a type of  reform or revolution 2.0’, Mills commented. She added that human rights lawyers can be seen to have opted for working on the ‘gates’, making it important that others also continue to work on the ‘wall’. 

Likewise, humanitarians – at least ‘classicist’ humanitarians – could be understood as having opted for working on the immediate humanitarian needs before them; remaining neutral to conflict parties’ resort to force in the first place. Moyn would seem to agree, arguing that in practice we are forced to choose between the ideals of opposing war or opposing the crimes taking place within it.                                                                                                                                                                                       

While Humane focuses on the effects after September 11 of the humanisation of war, such questions are not new, as Moyn also makes clear. One of the founders of the International Red Cross, Gustave Moynier, acknowledged at an 1863 Geneva Congress the paradox inherent in the struggle against war on the one hand and IHL’s protection of war victims on the other: ‘Listening to our detractors, we gather the impression that all we are doing is legitimising warfare as a necessary evil’. Of course, they did not want war, he stated, but, given war’s reality, ‘should we not try to alleviate [war’s deadly consequences]?’. The hope appeared to be that the horrors of war would become unacceptable in law and in practice as the law progressively developed over time: 

We have not given up fighting, but we do it in a slightly different way. We have tempered combat by imposing a few not too troublesome restrictions, which do not satisfy the philanthropists but which help them to bide their time in the hope of better things.

While the hope was for peace, André Durand explains that from its earliest moments, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ‘clearly showed that it would refrain from joining in the direct action of pacifist movements, while at the same time supporting their aims’. As a neutral organisation, in other words, one could not do both, but one could support both.

Certain responses to  Humane have argued, as above, that human rights or humanitarian practitioners share the moral impulse for peace but they are realistic about its achievement, and that it is possible to oppose war and work on its concrete consequences at the same time. As another example, in 1980 and repeated in 2020, the ICRC stated that the adoption of further IHL treaties (in this case, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) ‘will not only reduce the harm caused by war’ but could be seen ‘as a step forward in the difficult path towards universal peace’. 

In this framing, the placing of gates in the wall might eventually cause the wall to fall. At first glance, such positions may seem to push back against Moyn’s argument. However, I do not read Moyn as suggesting a blindness to war resistance by working on war’s particular consequences. Rather, in Moyn’s words, the call for humane war becomes an ‘indefinite postponement’ (p. 281) of the goal of peace in the name of security. The contrasting view therefore worries that the placement of gates necessarily accepts the wall and/or that too many gates risk the wall becoming less visible or urgent. This contrast in views does not seem to negate that humanitarian action can ‘do good’ in a particular moment (and, indeed, even if the wall will not fall, the humanitarian impulse demands of us the gates?). The debate is rather about the price at which this might come. In other words, it is about the causes, including the possible role of IHL’s restraints on warfighting, behind today’s entrenched globalised militarism.

Solidarity as an emerging principle of humanitarian action?

These contrasting views of the possibilities and inadvertent harms of humanitarian action need to be considered in the context of contemporary debates on the humanitarian sector. In particular, questions about the ongoing fitness for purpose of the traditional humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, need to be considered. Amongst other principles or values, several commentators, such as Clarke and Parris and the Director of The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News), Heba Aly, suggest that the sector needs to shift towards a posture of solidarity or, as Hugo Slim explains, certain organisations will do so anyway in certain circumstances.

My ongoing research is interested in the notion of solidarity in this context. Because solidarity appears as a good but can also involve power and privilege, and because it risks continued militarism and continued normalisation of civilians participating within it, I argue that if humanitarian actors were to embrace solidarity more fully they would need the confidence to reclaim non-violence and the resistance to war. That is, solidarity in the humanitarian sphere would need to be carefully coupled with an ethos of pacifism. Jeremy Moses, who argues similarly about humanitarianism even without the call for solidarity, explains that this means using pacifism as a guiding principle but still recognising the material challenges posed by the very real violence of the arenas in which humanitarian actors operate. 

Yet, stepping back, and even though these are far from new dilemmas, I also find that the scope and meaning of solidarity currently remains insufficiently defined by those calling for greater solidarity as a mode of humanitarian action. Does it suggest social solidarity with those affected by armed conflict or injustice, or something that involves taking sides – political solidarity with a cause, or a party to a conflict? Could it still fit within a neutral position, neutrality not being ‘the opposite of solidarity, but a way to render this noble sentiment actionable’? Does it require impartiality? Can humanitarian aid be an important part of solidary resistance against violence? Could solidarity in the name of protection and security accept calls for violence? In short, the notion of solidarity in this humanitarian context, and by connection the notion of pacifism, merit richer and more rigorous thinking.

Luxemburg’s Anti-militarism and Solidarity

In her own context and historical period, Luxemburg wrote about anti-militarism, pacifism and solidarity. Despite significant developments in warfighting and in international humanitarian operations since the early twentieth century, her thinking on these issues might still speak to us today and generate new directions for our thinking about humanitarianism and international law. 

Luxemburg’s work expresses an ‘empathetically sensitive relationship to the world’ (p. 4), and deep humanist concern for the struggle against social inequalities, the question of liberty, and the harmful social consequences of war and imperialism, including the impact of colonisation. A notion of solidarity could be seen in both her dedication to and faith in the working class – who also became ‘cannon fodder’ when states went to war – and the more specific call for international solidarity of the proletariat in struggling against militarism.

More pointedly for this post, Luxemburg engaged directly in the debate about the steps to restrain militarism, writing in a brief article entitled ‘The Meaning of Pacifism’ shortly before the start of the First World War:

The bourgeois friends of peace are endeavouring  –  and from their point of view this is perfectly logical and explicable – to invent all sorts of ‘practical’ projects for gradually restraining militarism, and are naturally inclined to consider every outward apparent sign of a tendency towards peace as the genuine article…

It was therefore a duty for revolutionary socialists 

to expose the bourgeois attempts to restrain militarism as pitiful half-measures and the expressions of such sentiments on the part of the governing circles as diplomatic make-believe… 

She acknowledged, therefore, the logic of gradually restraining warfighting but warned assiduously of the true impacts of war and the structural conditions contributing to it. As such, diplomatic agreements concerning disarmament simply did not get to the heart of the matter. 

Luxemburg’s position was of course based within the idea that militarism and wars could not be abolished while imperialism and capitalism continued. Today, thinking with Luxemburg can still show us the alluring power of arguments based in nationalism and security, or of legal progress, and how different concepts of solidarity might become somewhat slippery. 

At the heart of my questions is the dilemma of whether social solidarity requires us to join in political solidarity (p. 653) and if so, what that might look like. I do not think that the tensions presented by solidarity are new. Rather, as Luxemburg’s work might show us, such inherent tensions have always existed, but their argumentation might be framed differently in different political moments. Still, even if Luxemburg was writing in a particular political setting, she challenges us in an inspiring and radical way to contemplate what solidarity might mean and require. This offers additional layers to the richer and more rigorous thinking about humanitarianism, solidarity, and ongoing violence I am suggesting are always needed.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,680 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.