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Saving ourselves? On rescue and humanitarian action

Radice, Henry (2019) Saving ourselves? On rescue and humanitarian action. Review of International Studies, 45 (3). 431 - 448. ISSN 0260-2105

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Identification Number: 10.1017/S0260210518000554


This article contributes to the international political theory of humanitarianism by unpicking the politics of humanitarian action’s simplest expression: saving human lives in the name of humanity. Both saving lives and defining notions of common humanity are closely interrelated acts of power. What saving a life means depends on a prior definition of humanity; humanitarians’ acts of rescue are the measure of their commitment to humanity. The politics of rescue and the politics of humanity are inextricably linked. The article explores four facets of this nexus. First, it considers the meanings of rescue, from saving bodies to saving lives, linked to contingent understandings of humanity. Second, it turns to the rescuers, for whom rescue performs particular functions, not least the need to preserve a sense of self. Third, it situates their often narcissistic motives in relation to the consequences of humanitarian action. Fourth, it addresses the power imbalance inherent in rescue and the problem of causing harm. It concludes that rescue is always an act of presumption, but one that can be tempered by humanitarian actors willing to embrace their role as ‘moral politicians’ (Walzer), aware of their power and their dirty hands, and open to contrasting understandings of humanity.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2019 British International Studies Association
Divisions: International Development
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
Date Deposited: 12 Dec 2018 12:06
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 02:35

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