The First Day at Geneva started with an introduction to the public archives and library resources by ICRC staff. Jean-Luc Blondel, former Delegate, Head of Division, and currently Adviser to the Department of Communication and Information Management welcomed the group. Daniel Palmieri, the Historical Research Officer at the ICRC, and
Fabrizio Bensi, Archivist, explained the development of the holdings, particularly of the recently opened records from 1966-1975. The Librarian Veronique Ziegenhagen introduced the library with its encompassing publications on International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights, Humanitarian Action, international conflicts and crises. The ICRC also possesses a superb collection of photographs and films which Fania Khan Mohammad, Photo archivist, and Marina Meier, Film archivist explained.
In the afternoon, the GHRA group had the chance to discuss with Jacques Moreillon, Director General of the ICRC between 1984 and 1988. He gave a presentation on his long experience with special insights into Red Cross prison visits with political detainees. Dr Moreillon was one of the ICRC delegates to visit Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and shared his vivid memories with the participants.
Even as Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the movement’s Fundamental Principles, there is a palpable sense that they are at risk. Threatened not only by the resurgence of state sovereignty and proliferation of non-state armed groups, the very universality of the principles may be in question. As the twenty-first century draws on, are the principles of ‘impartiality’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ still fit for purpose as Western influence wanes and the nature of conflict itself rapidly evolves?
The Red Cross’ principles have marinated in a century and a half of humanitarian history. That history matters. The past helps us to understand how different types of threat to humanitarian principles have emerged from different types of conflict and geopolitical environments. History also sheds light on how, despite such obstacles, the principles came to acquire the public prominence and moral authority they currently possess.
Food distribution, Pakistan. ICRC / Muhammad, N.
Where did the Fundamental Principles come from?
The principles were first articulated by the Swiss jurist and co-founder of the international Red Cross, Gustave Moynier. His four principles of the 1870s ‒ ‘centralisation’, ‘foresight’, ‘mutuality’ and ‘solidarity’ ‒ were more firmly focused around the role of the national societies and their relation to the ICRC and each other.
Right from the get-go, the idea of giving aid based purely on the needs of the suffering, irrespective of religious, ethnic or political affiliation, was built into the Geneva Conventions. Article 6 of the 1864 Convention stated that wounded or sick combatants would be collected and cared for regardless of nationality.
At St Antony’s College Oxford, the Richard von Weizsäcker fellow organizes a conference on humanitarianism and aid. The meeting takes place at the European Studies Centre, 70 Woodstock Road, on 19 -20 June 2015. It focuses on the media as an essential feature of the history of humanitarianism. Contributors discuss both the role of the media in humanitarian activities, and the imagery produced in print or on screen. Scholars from history, media studies, and anthropology present recent research with a view on the visual discourse, the meanings and materiality of the images since the beginning of the 20th century. Critically considering the medialisation of the humanitarian, they analyse the interaction between humanitarian agencies and media actors.
Humanitarian aid has been a malleable concept. It covers a broad range of activities including emergency relief delivered to people struck by disasters; longer term efforts to prevent suffering from famine, ill-health or poverty; or humanitarian intervention. The boundaries of humanitarianism have often been blurred. Existing narratives for the twentieth century provide no satisfactory explanation for the evolution of the field. We need to highlight instead historical conjunctures and contingencies such as wars and post-war periods, empires and decolonization. The emphasis on conflicting forces and multi-layered structures at particular moments in time provides a historical perspective revealing fundamental dilemmas faced by international humanitarian aid to the present day.
This public lecture will take place on Tuesday 2nd December 2014, from 05:00 – 06:45 p.m. at the European Studies Centre.
Miriam Ticktin, “Transnational Humanitarianism”, Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (2014). This is a useful review article on how anthropologists have studied humanitarianism since the late 1980s. It provides valuable insight into the epistemology of the discipline but also raises questions which may interest others, such as historians like myself. One of Ticktin’s main contentions is that the study of humanitarianism was central to a shift in legal and medical anthropology, from analysing cross-cultural differences to a concern with the universal through the particuluar focus on suffering subjects. In the wake of decolonization, she suggests, this turn gave anthropology a new moral legitimation following criticism in the 1960s and 1970s of its entanglement with colonialism. We may ask whether the resulting kinship between anthropologists and humanitarians perhaps also has an analogy in the role historians wish to play when they study humanitarianism.
From Ticktin’s review of the recently literature, we see a move away from this emphatic engagement of the 1990s to a sometimes severe criticism of humanitarianism in present day anthropological writings. She asks (and historians need to ask themselves the same question, I believe) from what moral, political or other position we criticise those morally driven movements and actions. What is our role when we write, for example, about the “humanitarian aid industry”; the negative consequences of living in refugee camps; the self-interests of those humanitarians who outwardly engage to “save” others; or the implication of humanitarianism with other forces such as government domination over ethnic minorities, military activities or economic interests? As scholars, we cannot stop being critical but we should perhaps also reflect on the positions we are thereby occupying.
Lastly, Ticktin rightly emphasizes the blurring of boundaries of humanitarianism, i.e. the overlap between humanitarian relief, human rights, development, and humanitarian intervention. She claims that the delimitations are breaking down with the overwhelming growth of the humanitarian aid industry in recent years. From a historical perspective (see my take on the blurred history of humanitarian aid in Humanity 4/2 (2013), this is no surprise. To my knowledge, though, we do not have a careful study of how these boundaries were drawn over time. Ticktin’s review may serve as a reminder to pursue further historical investigation not only of the political in and around humanitarianism but also of the changing epistemology of scholarship on humanitarianism, and the way both interact. This is what a historian takes away from reading a most welcome review of the recent anthropological literature.
Bronwen Everill, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the King`s College London, and Josiah Kaplan, Research Associate at the Department of International Development of the University of Oxford, have recently published the interdisciplinary volume The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan 2013. Both editors compiled a variety of interesting essays by scholars of international relations as well as historians, which deal with cases of humanitarianism in sub-Saharan Africa. Seeking to investigate the continuities and evolutions since the colonial era, Everill and Kaplan deliberately chose a rather broad conceptual approach, one that “sees humanitarian military interventions as part of a series of related activities – or ‘interventions’ – in African societies, which includes military action, economic aid, political support and state-building and assistance” (p. 3).
However, by subsuming assistance for refugees, medical campaigns to combat leprosy, various forms of charity, famine relief, and discourses on good governance under the term of humanitarian intervention, in my opinion the editors run the risk of blurring the term and losing its conceptual precision. Both editors acknowledge the analytic importance of a long-term historical perspective and emphasize the need to link nineteenth-century colonial experiences with today’s humanitarian engagement in Africa. Yet the volume actually contains only one genuine essay dealing with the nineteenth century; nearly all of the other contributions concentrate on case studies from the second half of the twentieth century. The international relations approach seems to dominate the volume at the expense of the intended deeper historical perspective. Despite this conceptual critique each individual essay of the volume offers new intriguing perspectives of various forms of humanitarianism in sub-Saharan Africa. You will find my complete review of the volume @ http://www.sehepunkte.de/2013/11/23978.html.