Justice, Charity, or Alibi? Humanitarianism, Human Rights, and “Humanity Law”


Humanity’s Law
Ruti G. Teitel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii + 304 pp.


In his classic commentary on the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross, Jean Pictet argued that “legal justice” differs profoundly from charity. “Justice rewards each person according to his rights,” he wrote, and to judge is to “separate the good from the bad, the just from the unjust.” Charity, in contrast, “is the mainspring of immediate action by an individual in the face of a stricken victim” and “gives to each according to his suffering.”1 Pictet believed that justice and charity were mutually reinforcing in the abstract, but in tension with one another as active interventions in zones of conflict. If the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were to set itself up as judge and make public pronouncements about violations of international law, Pictet maintained, the organization would find it impossible to gain access to needy victims and carry out its basic mission of providing relief to the suffering. “One cannot be at one and the same time a champion of justice and charity. One must choose,” he insisted, adding, “The ICRC has long since chosen to be a defender of charity.”2

As the human rights movement emerged and expanded, many humanitarians came to question this ordering of priorities and looked to human rights principles for guidance in establishing an alternative approach—one rooted in an appeal to justice and right, rather than charity. A parallel development occurred in the arena of international law. Contemporary humanitarian law was not traditionally preoccupied with matters of justice but rather served to carve out a narrow set of protections designed to minimize “unnecessary suffering” in contexts of interstate conflict. International humanitarian law did not offer a fundamental challenge to Westphalian sovereignty and did not establish any basis for judging internal governance or pose any serious threat to militarism and imperialism. In contrast, the core human rights conventions that were drafted and ratified in the 1960s and 1970s outline sweeping standards for the manner in which states are to treat their own people in times of peace, which, if they were ever to be fully implemented, would dramatically transform the internal politics of existing states.

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About Bronwyn Leebaw

Associate professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside, where she teaches courses in human rights, transitional justice, political theory, international politics and ethics, and environmental justice. She is the author of Judging State-Sponsored Violence, Imagining Political Change (Cambridge, 2011) and has published articles on human rights, humanitarianism, and transitional justice in journals such as Perspectives on Politics, Human Rights Quarterly, Polity, and Journal of Human Rights. She codirects the University of California Human Rights Collaboration.