An Abduction of Idealism
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: November 9 2007 19:49 Last updated: November 9 2007 19:49
Having lost patience with western inaction over the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, Eric Breteau, the 37-year-old adventure philanthropist, took matters into his own hands. His French charity, Zoe’s Ark, planned to remove hundreds of orphans of war from Sudan and place them with western families.
But what looked to credulous supporters like no-nonsense humanitarianism looks to Chadian authorities like child abduction. Two weeks ago, Mr Breteau and five accomplices were arrested bringing 103 children to a chartered Boeing 757 that had been flown to a remote airstrip in the middle of the night. Almost immediately, horrified parents and furious relatives began showing up to claim the children. The International Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Unicef, the UN children’s fund, now estimate that 91 of the 103 children had been living with family and 85 were not from Sudan at all but from nearby villages in Chad.
Zoe’s Ark was not exactly a transparent operation. Documentary footage taken moments before the arrest showed staff wrapping two of the children with fake bandages to make them look like war wounded. The charity had sought supporters on adoption websites, collected cash contributions from them up-front and demanded secrecy. Mr Breteau and colleagues informed no one in Chad about the children’s final destination, telling the children’s guardians only that they would be schooled locally in French and the Koran. French authorities, who had warned Mr Breteau over the summer that his plans were possibly criminal, were caught by surprise.
What now happens to Mr Breteau and his colleagues? When does the justice system of a non-western country fall below a threshold of acceptable competence and impartiality and require that western governments intervene? Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has sent mixed signals. Last weekend, he travelled to Chad to secure the release of several French journalists, who had been documenting the Zoe’s Ark misadventure, and several Spanish stewardesses who had arrived in the chartered plane unawares. “France has confidence in the Chadian state and the Chadian judiciary,” he said then. (Other members of the flight crew were released on Friday.) But Mr Sarkozy later promised to “go to get those who remain, whatever they may have done”.
This was a mistake. The case is now a political football. Idriss Déby, the Chadian president, has alluded to organ-harvesting and paedophilia. Others have made the claim that the children were being brought to France to be converted from Islam to Christianity. But it is not clear that Europeans understand this case better than Chadians. It was Chad that contacted the UNHCR to sort out the status of the children. The death penalty does not come into play – the maximum penalty for the crimes of which Mr Breteau and others are accused is 20 years’ hard labour.
A key question involves the standing that “idealism” ought to have in a courtroom. In western public opinion and justice, it has a privileged place. Marie-Agnès Peleran, one of the journalists who travelled with Zoe’s Ark, calls Mr Breteau and his accomplices “idealists but not criminals”. But the two are not mutually exclusive, as any examination of Europe in the first half of the 20th century will show. “Idealistic” may describe less what the activists were giving than what they were getting – a sense of meaning; a sense of importance.
Not to mention a sense of freedom. Once a situation has been described as genocidal – as French and American journalists and politicians have described Darfur – are its opponents permitted to act with impunity anywhere in the world? For many years, American and European leaders have behaved as if upping the rhetorical ante and describing the Darfuri violence as a “genocide” was erring on the side of caution. It may be throwing caution to the wind. To declare a state of humanitarian emergency will be read by certain activists as declaring a suspension of the rule of law.
Rony Brauman, the former president of Doctors without Borders, told an interviewer: “When you set out as a rescuer in such conditions, you are bound to be a reckless one.” Mr Breteau and his colleagues’ certitude that they were right made the deceptions and the disguises and the slapdash documentation of the children’s provenance OK. “They talk about me as if I’m a criminal,” Mr Breteau told a French newspaper, “when I’m the only one who has tried to do anything for Darfur.”
Marc Garmirian, one of the journalists released last weekend, whose documentary footage is the source of much of what we know about Zoe’s Ark in Chad, asked Mr Breteau’s girlfriend, Emilie Lelouch: “What legitimacy do you have uprooting them [the children] like this?”
“What legitimacy do they have to assassinate a people?” Ms Lelouch replied, presumably referring to Sudanese authorities. “I don’t know. I don’t ask myself that question.”
Humanitarianism draws its legitimacy from its simplicity and selflessness. When one man’s anti-genocidal activism is another man’s kidnapping, the simplicity and selflessness are clearly gone, and what is being done has a large dose of something other than humanitarianism. Did a group of cocksure Europeans believe that their conception of justice trumped Africans’ conception of family? If so, they were engaged in an act of dehumanisation as dangerous as the one they thought they were fighting. No crime is more serious than the one that Zoe’s Ark defendants stand accused of. Only if French authorities understand its gravity should this case be decided anywhere else than in a courtroom in Chad.
Most philanthropists start their action because of sympathy into the people in need. However, this sympathy ought to be taken out while the philanthropic act is actually taking place because rationality is even more needed in the judgemental decisions in philanthropy.
One of the main differences between doing philanthropy and doing business is the ambiguity of the goal involved. In both practices, it is crucial to decide the three big questions, which are for whom, what and how, i.e. who are you going to serve (and of course, why), what are you going to provide them with and how are you going to do it best. In business, the question is relatively straight forward. All the answers depend on the bottom line, even though the background factors affecting the bottom line can be complicated. However, the same three questions in philanthropy are much harder to answer. For instance, how do you know who is actually in need? The Chadian children, in the French eye, may be in need of help, but not so much in their own parents' eyes. The same complications exist in the other two questions for philanthropy because the needs can be many and methods to settle the needs even more.
That is exactly why our sympathy have to be taken away while practising philanthropy. It is already hard enough to judge if somebody needs help and what kind of help he/she needs under bounded rationality. Putting emotion or passion in the equation makes things worse because emotional people are difficult to reason and deal with. This is exemplifed well by the common antipathy to criticizms of inefficient, ineffective or even wrong-headed philanthropic act.
Michael Corleone said in the Godfather,' don't hate your enemy, it affects your judgement'. Poverty, Climate Change, Lack of Human Right, Wars etc are all our enemies, but they are not to be hated, they are to be eliminated.