In a recent conference held at the Leibniz Institute of European History international scholars discussed in an interdisciplinary dialogue the history of European concepts of humanity in practice. However, as matter of fact the relationship between concepts and practices of humanity is not only one of historical research, but is also most relevant in our days. Confronted with the tremendous humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men trying to escape from disaster, war, and persecution – many of them drowning and dying on their perilous journeys to the alleged safe haven of Europe – voices are loudly raised appealing to common humanity and demanding appropriate action by the international community.
Horrified by the loss of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean Sea and on the concrete occasion of the appalling discovery of 71 dead refugees asphyxiated inside an abandoned lorry nearby the Austrian-Hungarian border the UN Secretary-General Baan Ki-Moon launched an urgent appeal on 28 August 2015: “A large majority of people undertaking these arduous and dangerous journeys are refugees fleeing from places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. International law has stipulated – and states have long recognized – the right of refuges to protection and asylum. When considering asylum requests, States cannot make distinctions based on religion or other identity – nor can they force people to return to places from which they have fled if there is a well-founded fear of persecution or attack. This is not a matter of international law; it is also our duty as human beings. […] I appeal to all governments involved to provide comprehensive responses, expand safe and legal channels of migration and act with humanity, compassion and in accordance with their international obligations.”