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UNTIMELY INTERVENTIONS?

:
DAVID KENNEDY ON HUMANITARIANISM AS A
VOCATION

Vik Kanwar*

Book Review

David Kennedy, THE DARK SIDES OF VIRTUE: REASSESSING


INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIANISM. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 2004. Pp. 400.

Professor David Kennedy likes telling stories about the unstable border
between legal practice and activism. I was reminded while reading his
newest book, The Dark Sides of Virtue, of a story he might appreciate.
Years ago, as an idealistic law intern, I worked with an experienced
international lawyer on a “plowshares” case. The case involved civil
disobedience by anti-nuclear activists at a missile silo and their subsequent
arrest by military police. As we met in a converted closet only half-
ironically called the “war room,” my supervisor asked me to formulate
some creative remedies using domestic law, international human rights law,
and humanitarian law. He went on to say, “In case you don‟t know what
humanitarian law is, it‟s a joke, there‟s nothing „humanitarian‟ or „legal‟
about it. It‟s just a nice and Orwellian way of saying „the etiquette of mass
murder‟.” The Dark Sides of Virtue is filled with similar stories charting the
excessive devotions and disillusionments, private ironies and public
solidarities that circulate among human rights advocates. While this book
should not be dismissed as an archive of outdated “strategic interventions,”
it bears the strong mark of the 1990s, when the Left was divided over
“humanitarian intervention.”1 As “humanitarian bombs” fell on Belgrade in

*
JSD Candidate, NYU School of Law
1
There is of course a point of indistinction between these positions. To contrast critical
with progressive discourses on humanitarian intervention, compare the “critical-
deconstructive” ANNE ORFORD, READING HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION: HUMAN RIGHTS
AND THE USE OF FORCE IN INTERNATIONAL LAW. Cambridge University Press, 2003., with
the largely sympathetic but “progressive-activist” JULIE MERTUS, BAIT AND SWITCH:
2 Untimely Interventions? [2004

1999, mainstream “liberals” typically claimed to harness power against


cruelty, while “progressives” sought to puncture liberal hypocrisy, and
“critical” scholars like Kennedy deconstructed their debates. Since
September 2001, starker choices have compelled a rapprochement between
liberal humanitarians and progressive activists— even in the “war room”
we speak more reverently of humanitarian law— and Kennedy‟s book
arrives in time to reconsider the value of a “critical” project at present.

Kennedy‟s choice of topics covers a broad swathe of contemporary


concerns. In each case, the subject is “the humanitarian” actor in contexts of
increasing power and responsibility. In his introductory chapter (p. 3),
asking whether international human rights movement is “more part of the
problem than the solution,” he develops a comprehensive checklist of
reasons to be skeptical. His rights-skepticism is inspired more by legal
realism than realpolitik, and inflected less by the traditional Marxist critique
of rights than more recent feminist and postcolonial interventions. Yet
Kennedy‟s reference to “the solution” is fundamentally misleading. He
remains rigorously anti-programmatic, “critical” in a sense best articulated
by Foucault: “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is
dangerous.”2 For Foucault as much as Kennedy the vocation of activism is
an imperative (“If everything is dangerous then there‟s always something to
do”), but one that cannot be defined in terms of success. The best Kennedy
can do is to log with humor and self-analysis his own imperfect quest to
combine the “good fight” with the “good life.” In the second and third
chapters (“Spring Break” and “Autumn Weekend”) Kennedy reprints two
classic first-person narratives. The first takes place at a Paraguayan prison,
(p. 37) and the second at an international conference on the future of East
Timor (p. 85). These memoir-fragments invert the familiar human rights
narratives of heroic war correspondents and indignant statesmen;
Kennedy‟s frontline is neither the killing fields nor the seat of power, but a
more familiar world for most of us: the mundane conferences and awkward
conversations of a nascent “international civil society.” He reveals with
sympathy but not superiority the ambiguous motives, human faults and
fantasies underlying cosmopolitan activism. While one may wince as
Kennedy skewers well-meaning doers and hard-won deeds, the forcefulness
of his critique increases proportionally with the power of his targets. Thus,
the remainder of the book shifts from activists to policy-makers.These four

HUMAN RIGHTS AND U.S. FOREIGN POLICY (New York: Routledge, 2004).
2
See Michel Foucault, The Subject and Power, in HUBERT L. DREYFUS AND PAUL
RABINOW, eds., MICHEL FOUCAULT: BEYOND STRUCTURALISM AND HERMENEUTICS
(1983).
2004] D. Kennedy‟s Dark Sides of Virtue 3

chapters— also the most substantively satisfying— apply the same analysis
to the following topics: (1) pragmatism in humanitarian policy-making, (2)
the “rule of law” in economic development, (3) refugee protection, and
finally (4) humanitarian intervention. In the end, the book‟s most glaring
defect is that is doesn‟t contain its own sequel; Kennedy might now proceed
to newer dangers and complacencies international society concentrated on
two poles: the torque of the “war on terrorism” and the inertia of “global
governance.” While “liberal consensus” is a perpetual myth— today as
much as in the 1990s— a truly dissonant voice is all the more important for
its recent muted-ness.