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The camp and the lesser evil: humanitarianism in Sri Lanka

Keen, David (2014) The camp and the lesser evil: humanitarianism in Sri Lanka. Conflict, Security and Development, 14 (1). pp. 1-31. ISSN 1467-8802

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Identification Number: 10.1080/14678802.2013.856176


This article examines the 2009 humanitarian disaster in Sri Lanka through fieldwork conducted at the time and through theoretical lenses supplied by Arendt, Foucault and Agamben. The article suggests that this catastrophe represents a salutary example of the consequences of promoting a ‘lesser evil’ in the context of a government-fuelled human rights disaster. In line with Arendt's critique of the ‘lesser evil’, the case illustrates the limits to prioritising compromise, quietude and ‘access’. At the same time, while ‘democracy’ and ‘terror’ have frequently been posed as opposites, this tragedy shows how democratic forces, nationally and even internationally, can embrace something that approximates to Agamben's ‘camp’, a state of emergency in which entire groups of people lose their rights and can, at the extreme, be killed with impunity. Meanwhile, a pervasive official language of ‘care’ and ‘humanitarianism’ (corresponding to Foucault's politics of ‘life’) not only proved entirely consistent with ethnic cleansing and the large-scale killing of civilians; it also actively assisted in this endeavour by creating a smokescreen behind which massacres could be carried out.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2013 King’s College London
Divisions: International Development
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Date Deposited: 05 Aug 2013 14:44
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 01:48

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