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"Delinquent" states, guilty consciences and humanitarian politics in the 1990s

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Notions such as ‘guilt’ and ‘forgiveness’ can be defined in objective terms, but more normally have an emotional dimension that cannot be experienced by the institutions examined in this collection of articles. Nevertheless, analogs to these emotions can be discerned in the behaviour of states – and exploring these reveals important insights into what are more (and less) effective ways of responding to, and making amends for, institutional failure. In the 1990s the Western powers were engaged in dealing with a sequence of crises which appeared to call for some kind of intervention – Bosnia 1991/95, Somalia 1992/3, Haiti, 1993/4, Rwanda 1994, Kosovo 1998/9 – and this essay explores the extent to which it can be said that action/inaction in one case can be related back to moral judgements of behaviour in earlier cases. What emerges is not a single narrative of guilt and rectificatory action, but two narratives focusing on different referent objects: obligations towards one's own citizens and toward the putative common good. The picture is complex, yet some significant lessons can be drawn from this analysis. One is the counter-intuitive point that a ‘guilty conscience’ may actually be more effective when the guilt in question is not attributable to the individual whose behaviour is affected, but rather is seen to be borne by the institution that he or she represents. Assuming that guilt is generated by ignorance rather than ill-will, another, more general, lesson is that better intelligence in the broadest sense of the term – including intelligence of the past moral failures of institutions – may be of more value than a (probably difficult to achieve) theory of institutional guilt.

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