The practice of sending humanitarian aid to foreign countries has always been political, but Morocco's decision to refuse offers of search-and-rescue teams raises questions about national sovereignty and politics in times of crisis.
PARIS — A deadly earthquake in Morocco, catastrophic flooding in Libya – two disasters in two countries on the southern shore of the Mediterranean have sparked strong emotions, and revived an old debate about humanitarian aid.
France dispatched a field hospital Thursday with 50 personnel to the region of Derna, on the Libyan coast, where the tragedy has claimed thousands of victims. The medical aid will be welcome in the country, which, after 10 years of instability, has no unified government.
At the beginning of this week, France was ready to send civil search and rescue experts, dogs and equipment to earthquake-struck Morocco – just as France did earlier this year after the earthquake in Turkey, and as it has done on many other occasions. But Morocco never gave the green light, and the search and rescue teams stayed in France. The same goes for teams offered by the U.S.
Duty to intervene"
The contrast between these two situations raises a number of questions. In a video posted on social media and addressed to Moroccans, French President Emmanuel Macron himself spoke of “controversies that have no reason to exist” – but his effort at direct communication shows that not everything has gone as Paris would have hoped.
Among these questions, there is of course the very nature of state humanitarian aid. It should come as no surprise that it is also a political issue; it has always been. The first French humanitarian intervention dates back to Napoleon III. In 1860, the French army was sent to Lebanon to save threatened Christians. Officially, it was purely a humanitarian mission. But it was obviously about reinforcing French influence, in the face of the Ottoman Empire.
“Duty to Intervene”, a book by historian Yann Bouyrat, which examines the French expedition, notes the extent to which the debates of 1860 resemble those which continue today.
Since the end of the Cold War, the concepts of the “right” and even the “duty to intervene” have been refined and codified. Morocco’s refusal to welcome French rescuers means that those days are over. Rabat has signaled the return of sovereignty, even in the most dire emergencies.
Relief supplies destined for Libyan flood victims loaded at the German Air Force at the Wunstorf air base.
Julian Stratenschulte/dpa via ZUMA
A diplomatic tool
On the other side, Libya shows that this “humanitarian intervention,” for which the Western world has increasingly advocated, remains legitimate when it concerns failed states. This, unfortunately, is the case with Libya – and French aid is particularly welcome there, given that France bears considerable responsibility for the chaos in the country, after its involvement in the 2011 military intervention against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
It would be a tragedy if, in the name of this national pride, disaster victims are deprived of help.
Rony Brauman, one of the French thinkers working in this field, emphasized in his 1995 book “Humanitarian Action” that, in the 20th century, “Humanitarian action asserted itself as a component of international relations and a diplomatic tool, at once as an individual commitment and as a privileged means of access to the world.”
The expression of sovereignty we are now seeing changes the situation. It would be a tragedy if, in the name of this national pride, disaster victims are deprived of help that is not available locally. The risk is that solidarity will wane in a world which needs it more than ever.