Liisa H. Malkki is Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. She is the author of
A Zealous Humanism and Its Limits: Sacrifice and the Hazards of Neutrality
This chapter explores the ICRC’s commitment to the principle of “humanity,” and its remarkably absolute insistence that its services be provided equally to all human beings, irrespective of circumstance. Starting with the analysis of an interlocutor’s discussion of a film about murdered Benedictine monks in Algeria, the chapter documents a range of cases in which adherence to the principle of “humanity” required ICRC workers to subject themselves to possible acts of violence, sometimes while providing medical aid to the very people carrying out such acts. Such “neutrality” is neither rational nor detached, but instead grows out of an absolutist commandment (“a human is a human”) that has an almost religious force—a zealous humanism. Inevitably, such zealous commitment encounters limits, which humanitarian volunteers (like the monks in the film) experienced and reflected upon. This encountering of, and reflecting on, limits is an inescapable, familiar element of modern humanitarian practice.