The Kosovo war was fought "not for territory but for values" according to Tony Blair. The bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 was conducted to help "the oppressed people of Afghanistan", according to George W. Bush, so that they may know "the generosity of America and our allies". Meanwhile, according to Jack Straw, stopping the bombing "would only prolong the suffering of the Afghan people". Pro-war adepts could easily adduce similar comforting thoughts about the war waged on Iraq in March 2003. The ideology of human rights is not only unversalist, but also universally accepted. Human rights organisations now regularly call for "humanitarian intervention" and decry the lack of attention to such crisis spots as the Democratic Republic of Congo. David Rieff notes that humanitarian organisations are now "among the most fervent interventionists". From a politics of fence-sitting to one of active political engagement, the ‘human rights’ movement has conducted a rapid and striking volte-face in the past decade, a paradigm-shift of shocking proportions. It is as if Ptolemy and Aristotle had given way to Copernicus and Descartes in ten, instead of 200, years. And David Chandler, for one, would like to know why.
Chandler’s book begins by establishing exactly how universal the doctrine of ‘human rights’ has become. Indeed, the language is ubiquitous, and no Minister of Defense can resist the temptation to sound like a UN Secretary General or an Amnesty International activist – even a liberal revolutionary, pace Tony Blair greeting cheering Kosovars with his blue shirt-sleeves rolled up and a heroic cast of expression on his kisser. And what is most objected to by the new generation of human rights activists has been precisely the demand for neutrality. Geoffrey Robertson derides the "obsessive neutrality ingrained in US personnel and procedures", while Michael Ignatieff demanded of Boutros Boutros-Ghali: "Why insist on being neutral, in the face of a clear aggressor and a clear victim, when that neutrality daily undermines the United Nations’ moral credit?" The IRCR has been widely condemned for having remained silent about the concentration camps during World War II, and recently for not divulging information it had about the mistreatment of prisoners in Bosnia with the Hague tribunal. The silence was not due to moral paucity, but to a surfeit of principle – one must never, under any circumstances, compromise one’s political neutrality. This is the idea that modern ‘human rights’ activists are inclined to question. The IRCR has pointed out that they would never have had access to suffering victims in prison camps had it not been for their reputation for neutrality, and indeed were the only charitable organisation able to operate in Serb-controlled areas. But the new humanitarians consider this a "one more blanket" approach – small gestures of alleviation that do not go to the root of the problem.
And there are a number of cases that appear to obviate the need for a specifically partisan approach. In Rwanda, for instance, many human rights organisations withdrew aid from some refugee camps because they believed that among the recipients would be genocidairres. For the first time in its history, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) did just that. The rejection of neutrality has resulted in a "new humanitarianism" among NGOs, specifically Oxfam, Save the Children and UNICEF who now see their role as being a radical attempt to alter the shape of non-Western societies. They seek to get to the root causes of deviant conduct by states and opposition groups in those societies, and challenge them. MSF, meanwhile, is the leading exponent of this approach. As Bernard Kouchner noted, "MSF’s work was political from the start", while Alain Destexhe, former secretary-general of MSF, insisted that "humanitarian action is noble when couple with political action and justice. Without them, it is doomed to fail." (It is therefore no surprise to find several of their leading theorists hailing interventions into Kosovo and Sierra Leone in their book In the Shadow of the "Just War", 2004).
Another aspect of the paradigm-shift has been the break with the traditional concern for immediate human needs, with tending the suffering of all, to the preferment for human rights. In this view, it is permissible to allow some preventable deaths in circumstances where it is deemed to lead to better long term human rights outcomes. This has been, not only contiguous with, but absolutely essential for, the growing politicisation of humanitarian aid. The attachment of aid to human rights conditions has been the official policy of the UK government since 1994. The UN World Food Programme immediately suspended aid to Afghanistan following the attack on the World Trade Centre despite a humanitarian crisis precisely because they feared it might get into the hands of the Taliban. Geoffrey Robertson argued that sanctions on post-war Serbia were justified since "most of Serbia’s 8 million citizens were guilty of indifference towards atrocities in Kosovo". There is a counter-trend to this. Oxfam’s Nick Stockton denounces the new ideology of the "undeserving victim" as "morally and ethically untenably, and practically counter-productive", fatally diluting the universalism of human rights. To withhold aid on the grounds that its recipients may be criminals is arbitrary application of punishment before trial, he argues. "Such treatment is arguably a crime against humanity".