The ubiquitous presence of humanitarian organizations in Lebanon since the 2006 war has created a variety of well-paid jobs and careers and sought to produce new forms of Lebanese subjectivities. Primarily, the humane subject who performs humanity as an ethical sentiment of traumatic shock when faced with dehumanizing violence and the humanitarian subject whose activism regulates violations of human rights.i While the former has been met with resistance in Lebanon, at least within certain social classes and communities, the latter has become a powerful subjectivity whose critical way of belonging to the Lebanese state might be eroding the possibilities for a real and sustainable mobilization for social change in the country.
The history of humanitarian intervention in Lebanon is tightly linked to a strand of Lebanese history: that of conflict and violence. Unlike popular readings of humanitarianism, the humanitarian justification of military intervention did not in fact first take place in Somalia in the early 1990s. European governments repeatedly used humanitarianism as a pretext for their own political and military agenda in the nineteenth century, from the Greek war of independence in 1820 to the erupted conflicts and fighting in Mount Lebanon in 1860. The French intervention in Lebanon in 1860 was justified as a humanitarian rescue of a victimized “Christian minority” suffering under “Ottoman Muslim” rule.
The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Lebanese civil war did not necessarily attract multiple forms of international humanitarian interventions as much as it helped standardize Post-traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD). This psychiatric disorder was added to the diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, and later universalized trauma as the frame of suffering in violent-related situations. The incorporation of trauma and psychological programs as a priority first aid program in humanitarian intervention in 1990, which included treatments of PTSD, trauma diagnosis and other forms of western-validated psychological programs, also placed trauma at the center of humanitarian emergency aid in sites of conflict and war. This standardized proliferation of humanitarian psychological interventions has been widely articulated and visible in Lebanon during and after the 2006 war. These interventions attempt to produce and influence new forms of psychological subjects with a particular and global way of suffering from and understanding violence and loss.
The incorporation of trauma-related interventions in humanitarian emergency aid is one of the many changes that marked humanitarianism in the post-Cold War era. The identity and principles of humanitarianism have been dramatically reshaped after the fall of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of civil wars in eastern European countries. These conflict areas opened new domains for humanitarian sovereignty and intervention. Humanitarianism turned from a neutral form of aid to an inevitably politicized intervention in emergencies, a witness of human rights violations and an entrepreneurial industry accountable to Western states, private donors, and corporations.
This new face of humanitarianism has brought forth new challenges, critiques, and dilemmas in the field. Neutrality in action, a long-standing humanitarian principle followed and formally acknowledged by most internationally acclaimed organizations like the Red Cross, has been revoked by humanitarian experts themselves among others.ii Humanitarian organizations began conflating emergency aid intervention with development and military intervention, while their humanitarian workers were perceived more as politically interested actors than as rescuing heroes.
These new challenges and critiques are manifested in Lebanon, especially since the 2006 war, where international and local non-governmental organizations (NGO) as well as state social service institutions began implementing different post-conflict and relief-outreach programs mainly in South Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut. During the thirty-three-day war on Lebanon, humanitarian organizations focused on providing emergency first aid to displaced populations, including a “psychological first aid” (PFA) program that attempts to “de-traumatize” both local and international humanitarian staff and affected communities. By prioritizing “trauma” as a first aid issue, PFA served as an “on the spot” psychological relief for displaced populations during war. Other forms of psychological interventions included psychiatric referrals, art therapy and psychosocial interventions that were implemented more chaotically during the war.
After the cease fire, the interest of humanitarian organizations shifted to more standardized and formalized forms of psychosocial rehabilitation for affected communities and vulnerable populations, especially children. These included different types of developmental projects in villages that ranged from dialogue with community members to building libraries, community based programs that served as a psychological prevention for future wars and catastrophes and physical reconstruction of affected areas. These programs helped propagate and introduce a globally and psychiatrically legitimate way of suffering and of making sense of violence, loss and death.
One example of how some local Lebanese communities resisted and refused to inscribe by this traumatized subjectivity can be seen in the failure of humanitarian organizations in providing proper psychological interventions for Lebanese Shi‘a, the Lebanese community most affected by the 2006 war. In a public speech delivered during ‘Ashura’ in December 2009, Hizballah’s Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah discussed the role of “global organizations studying the psychological effect of the war in South Lebanon” and their failures in detecting signs of trauma among Lebanese Shi‘a. For Nasrallah “this absence of trauma is a special and unique phenomenon in history.”iii His speech can be seen to express a form of counter-humanitarian discourse and challenged universally legitimate forms of suffering that dismiss the political, historical, and cultural contexts of violence and loss. The epistemic implications behind these programs, the insistence on a victimized, individualistic, and traumatized form of suffering, did not seem to fit with a historical and contemporary discourse of resistance to Israeli occupation and war, nor with religio-political worldviews of suffering that circulate in these communities.
This “absence of trauma” is not new in Lebanon. In 1983, Mansell Pattison, an American psychiatrist from the University of Cincinnati, was invited by the Lebanese Ministry of Health to study the impact of the civil war on the nation’s mental health. In a research report published in 1984, Pattison wrote:
“I fully expected to find a war-devastating population, with obvious evidence of war trauma. Much to my surprise, this was not the case. The Lebanese population, both Christian and Moslem, were relieved, cheerful, energetic, enthusiastic, basically rebuilding their country. It was like a country of buzzing worker bees. I did not find obvious cases of psychic traumatization, and only with difficulty did I unearth indication of indirect effects of war on psychological well-being”iv (Pattison 1984:35).
Despite the obvious essentialism behind Pattison’s explanations for the absence of trauma in Lebanon, war-affected Lebanese communities seem to ironically engage with these kinds of representations as a way of defying a global form of traumatized subjectivity. This “absence of trauma” has been sometimes dangerously translated and explained by statements like “cultures of death,” which claim a natural “Lebanese way” of normalizing violence and loss. But a closer look at the particular modes of violence in everyday life in Lebanon will reveal a much more complex form of suffering and pain that Lebanese communities deal with and recover from collectively. The epistemic resistance to trauma and humanitarian psychological interventions should be read in terms of a resistance to global forms of suffering that abstract death and violence from its historical and political context and commodifies it.
Secondly, humanitarian organizations in Lebanon has created a political economy of human rights and civility that dominates the everyday anatamo-political behaviors and ways of being “Lebanese,” from the proper ways of driving, smoking, standing in line, hiking, and enjoying nature to the proper ways of speaking about violence, religion, women, racism and remembering the civil war. The increased humanitarian involvement in Lebanon helped fund, create and standardize local NGOs and opened new job opportunities for Lebanese youth. This rise of the NGO market also produced a micropolitical economy of human rights that influences Lebanese politics and the social fabric. However, in the long term, it eventually contributes to political stagnation because of the type of Lebanese activism and activists it is producing.
Moreover, during the 2006 war, humanitarian organizations focused heavily on training local staff and community leaders in different forms of humanitarian skills and principles that varied from community-based development, identification and treatment of trauma, programs that aim to prevent the detrimental psychosocial consequences of future conflicts and wars, communication skills, empowerment, community building, identifying human right violations, and others. These “humanitarian skills” introduced a specific form of activism and humanitarian subjectivity for both local staff and the targeted community members who practiced, performed and learned the value of humanitarian subjectivity.
While it intersected in some ways with the politics of particular local Lebanese communities, humanitarian policies and programs have contributed to the commodification of violence and “uncivility” in Lebanon, thus producing a political economy of human rights. While these forms of interventions make corruption and suffering audible and visible, they produce specific forms of subjectivity, the Lebanese activist, the humanitarian and the NGO worker, that may lead to negative consequences in failed states of sovereignty like Lebanon. These forms of subjectivity can rarely be sustainable since they depend heavily on global connections and many times lack an inter-subjective locality in Lebanon. The documentary Remnants of a War [http://www.remnantsfilm.com ] produced and filmed by Jawad Metni about South Lebanese de-mining workers, is one example of these temporary humanitarian subjectivities that cannot possibly be sustained and made permanent by a failed state.
The Lebanese humanitarian subject therefore became inscribed to global and universalist forms of humanity, someone who is familiar and aware of multiple causes and takes stands with and against different global and local issues. This micropolitical humanitarian sovereignty created a special form of belonging to the state, whose already failed and corrupted institutions became the target of critiques, scrutiny and human rights violations. The Lebanese activist belongs to the state by critiquing it from the outside, gesturing and recording the already established failures of the state, marking the already marked. By globally gesturing at the state and not to the state, the Lebanese humanitarian subject becomes an outside actor incapable of producing meaningful and sustainable social change. Here lies the paradox of humanitarianism and of the Lebanese activist subject who keeps the failed state at check by performing human rights, a temporary form of global critical citizenship and connectivity to the state, while herself being incapable of building a permanent connection and belonging to the institution of which she is critical.
i Ilana Feldman & Miriam Titckin, eds. In the Name of Humanity: the Government of Threat and Care. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
ii In the last two decades, a raft of publications by humanitarians were written as a critique of humanitarianism and a recognition of the crisis it is undergoing, notably Mary Andersons’ Do No Harm and David Rieff’s Bed for the Night that critiqued the neutrality humanitarian principle and its demise.
iii Hassan Nasrallah. December 2009. Speech presented during ‘Ashura’.
iv Pattison, E. Mansell,. “1984 War and Mental Health in Lebanon,” Journal of Operational Psychiatry, vol. Vol 15 (1984),: Pp. 31-38.