UN World Humanitarian Day 19th August 2016
It’s World Humanitarian Day – set up to celebrate and remember those who risk their lives to deliver humanitarian aid in war and crises. People who put themselves in great danger to alleviate suffering of others. Brave and selfless people. This year, the theme of the day is “One Humanity”. The UN is calling for solidarity with the 130 million people in the world who need humanitarian aid just to survive.
And it brings me to wonder what we mean by “humanitarian”. From an aid perspective it means giving assistance to people regardless of their allegiance, without discrimination, with impartiality – just because they are human.
But to be humanitarian, what is that? I would like it to mean that we recognise the humanity in all people. We see them as human. As having the same feelings and fears and hopes and pain and joy as ourselves. As being as worthy of a safe and fulfilling life.
Throughout history we – the human race – have dehumanised people in order to justify inequality, injustice, theft, violence, and genocide. We have been persuaded over and over again that “other” is less than us. That those others don’t have the same feelings or intelligence, or capabilities, or civilisation, or skills, or needs, or feelings as us.
The Nazi Holocaust treated human beings like cattle to the slaughter. The perpetrators telling themselves that these people were of lower order humans, not as perfect as others, flawed and dispensable, a rotten apple that needs purging. Less than human.
For centuries, the people of an entire continent were labelled as savages, in need of civilising, not the same, less than human. Justifying slavery and colonialism And still today, despite strong and growing economies, advanced technology and industry, highly educated professionals, people from Africa are most often portrayed as incapable, vulnerable, uneducated, in need of our compassion, in need of European help, less than.
Currently, refugees, mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, struggling to keep themselves alive, are labelled as a hoard. Less than human. Their struggle to stay alive and their human needs, their skills, knowledges, aspirations, love, community bonds, boiled down to a hoard – or herd – of less-than-human migrants.
“Other” is a social contruct. We learn our identity as dichotomies – man or woman, black or white, Muslim or Jewish – where “other” is “not like me” and a threat. It is when we start seeing people as people, as complex as ourselves, with the same capacities for feeling and thought, that we can start to break down our prejudices and misconceptions.
So many of the world’s atrocities and inequities can be carried out because we forget that we are all human. We allow the greedy and despotic to persuade us that oppression is just. That it is what is needed to contain the other. We forget that people in this disaster or that war, are people with intelligence and culture and humour and aspirations, with careers and families and friends and lives and loves. They become at best a number to ignore and at worst a threat to eliminate.
So, as we remember courageous and selfless humanitarian aid workers, let us also remember that we are all human. Because to forget that, is to let slip the very horrors that require humanitarian aid.