As historians have engaged in a widespread and heated discussion about the history of human rights and its relationship to contemporary political and social developments around the world, many have also turned to humanitarianism. With new and protracted conflicts raging in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and with the growing number of natural disasters caused by a rapidly changing climate, humanitarian workers and organizations are busier than ever before. And yet, the scholarly literature on humanitarianism and the labours of humanitarian workers since the 1700s was, until the last decade or so, focussed mainly on humanitarian aid delivered to various sites of conflict after the end of the Cold War. Political scientists were the primary researchers pushing this field of humanitarian studies. Thankfully, historians have joined this scholarly discussion, adding a much-needed historical perspective. Historians at all levels are trying to understand the origins and development of humanitarianism, asking many vital questions: what has mobilized empathy for those suffering during war; how has humanitarianism been used and abused by the West in its effort to colonize the Global South; how can we understand the often-fraught gender and power dynamics involved in humanitarian campaigns and in the administration of aid; and, what is the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights? Scholars are also historicizing humanitarian institutions – like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE, and older institutions that tried foster “humanitarian sensibilities” like religious groups (missionaries) and the abolitionist movement – and asking how they fit into this budding historical narrative?
This rather brief outline of the field and its vital questions are merely a sampling of the work being done by historians around the world. It is also a snap shot of some of the themes I took away from this year’s iteration of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy. In July 2018, I had the privilege of travelling to the University of Exeter in the UK and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Public Archive and Library in Geneva, Switzerland with the generous support of Care for the Future, the Leibniz Institute for European History, the German Historical Institute in London, and the ICRC. During my two-week intensive workshop and archival work, I had the pleasure of meeting and exchanging views with established scholars, newly-minted PhDs, and fellow PhD Candidates. I learned a lot during what can only be called a two-week academic adventure! While I could probably write ad nauseum about what I learned, my archival finds, and the people I met, I want to draw attention to a few lessons.
Professor Richard Toye (RT) interviews Centre Director Andrew Thompson (AT). Professor Thompson recently returned from an archival visit to the ICRC and would like to thank Jean-Luc Blondel and his colleagues for their assistance and guidance.
RT:Andrew, you’ve recently come back from Geneva, where you’ve been doing some archival research. What were you looking at and why?
AT: I was looking at two sets of files in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross that have not yet been publicly released. The first on the Nigeria-Biafran War – a watershed in the history of the ICRC as well as a conflict that has been aptly described as the “crucible of modern humanitarianism”. I hope to be the first scholar to reconstruct in detail what one of the largest post-war relief operations actually looked and felt like on the ground. Second, I was looking at their files related to Aden as part of a parallel interest in the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights and the ICRC’s work on behalf of political detainees. Aden brought to a head many issues regarding the status of such detainees that had been simmering for several years.
RT:Stephanie Decker has recently suggested that historians need to be more explicit about how and why they use archives in order to help explain their work to people in other disciplines. What are the advantages of this kind of evidence for understanding the problems of humanitarianism? Continue reading →
Since its founding in 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been aware of the importance of keeping a record of its work and of its legacy – in the form of paper and audiovisual archives – to preserve the memories and knowledge of its past and to lay the foundation for its current and future work. Over time, the organization has amassed an outstanding and unique collection that encompasses its own history as well as the history of international humanitarian law and humanitarian action in general.
In January 1996, the ICRC decided to open its archives to the public in broad chronological sections at a time. By shortening the protective embargo on its archives, the ICRC was able to open the 1951-1965 records in 2004, thereby adding to the sources in its collection available for consultation by the public. From January 2015, the 1966-1975 archives will also be open to outside researchers. Continue reading →
On the occasion of the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863, and the signing of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, Geneva’s museums of art and history are presenting the exhibition “Humanizing War? ICRC – 150 years of humanitarian action“. The aim of this major exhibition is to show the various challenges the ICRC has faced at different times and in the light of parallel developments in the nature of conflicts and violence.
The concept of the exhibition is to focus on humanitarian action by the ICRC over 150 years by showing the development of:
• conflicts and the context of violence;
• the identities of victims and the kinds of violence they suffer;
It is exactly one year ago that we have started our blog on the history of humanitarianism and human rights. In our first blog post we wondered where our idea will lead us…
Ever since we have invited academics around the world to join us in creating this kind of online network to articulate ideas, to exchange information, to present perspectives from different backgrounds, and to share the same interest in these prospering fields of historical research.
We have received an overwhelming positive response from our colleagues and thanks to their manifold contribution hhr-blog has attracted so far the interest of more than 22000 people around the world. At the moment over 2500 readers are visiting hhr-blog every month!
On this occasion we would like to say thank you very much to all of your contributions and your interest in reading our blog.
We will keep on posting and hope you will stay with us!
The United Nations and international organizations in general are a growing field of historical interest and research. The United Nations History Project coordinated by Heidi J. S. Tworek, Lecturer on History and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University, provides a great starting point for every scholar who wants to research in UN archives and seeks to find online materials related to the United Nations. The website collates various research guides concerning the United Nations, offers syllabi and teaching material on UN topics as well as timelines, bibliographies and various sources on thirteen major UN history themes. The project seeks to connect scholars and archivists as well as to list existing academic networks for those working on similar topics. Thus, the project explicitly welcomes “contributions relating to archives, scholarly networks, and syllabi in English and other UN languages.”
You may have already noticed that from time to time we cross-post contributions of the Imperial & Global Forum. This is the excellent blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the History Department of the University of Exeter, which comprises of one of the largest groups of imperial and global historians currently working in the UK. Edited by Marc-William Palenthe blog connects in a significant way historians working in this research field and offers a dynamic exploration of imperial history.
This promising new project has been launched recently http://salamanca.adwmainz.de/index.php?id=1756&L=1 at the Academy of Sciences and Literature in Mainz. Apart from a digital edition of key texts the project is develloping a historical dictionary of the School of Salamanca’s juridical and political language, which will be very useful for scholars working on the history of humanitarianism and human rights.
In one of my last entries I have referred to the interesting blog of the journal humanity (http://www.humanityjournal.org/blog) with its manifold contributions on the issue of human rights and humanitarianism.
The history & historiography of forced migration, humanitarianism, and sometimes even human rights
The blog is run by Jared Manasek, a PhD candidate in the department of history at Columbia University. Launched in 2012 Displacement Activity provides various useful information about articles, books, call for papers, conferences, fellowships and reviews concerning the issues of refugees and humanitarian history. Enjoy discovering Jared Manasek’s blog!
Since October 2009 exists the research network Recht im Kontext at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study), funded by the state of Berlin. Recht im Kontext aims at a better re-contextualization of the law among its neighboring disciplines. It seeks to initiate new forms of dialogue and to create discursive structures between the law, the humanities and social sciences. This will confront the law and legal scholarship with other disciplines’ concept(s) and perception(s) of law. The research network also launches a blog entitled Verfassungsblog. On Matters Constitutional.
The spokesman of Recht im Kontext is Christoph Möllers, Professor of Public Law and Jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, Humboldt-University Berlin. The academic coordination of the research network is in the hands of Alexandra Kemmerer.
One essential topic of Recht im Kontext is the question of human dignity and rights. Between June 20 and 21, there will be a conference on “The Concept of Human Dignity in a Comparative Perspective – Cases and Developments”. As soon as there is more information about the event, we shall post the program. For now please have a look at the schedule of the research network.
While participating in the conference “Rezensieren, Kommentieren, Bloggen” (http://rkb.hypotheses.org/) in February 2013 at the Siemens Stiftung in Munich we got the idea that it might be worth to start our own academic blog on the two entangled and prospering research fields of humanitarianism and human rights. After discussing the issue with colleagues of the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) in Mainz, we recently decided together to start this blog as an experiment without knowing exactly where it will lead us.
At present, many young international scholars, including several colleagues here at the IEG, conduct research on their own which extends or differentiates the debate on the sources and trajectories of humanitarian norms and human rights. By creating this blog we want to give them a forum to get closer in contact with each other, to articulate their ideas, to exchange information and knowledge, to present perspectives from different backgrounds, and to share the same interest on the history of humanitarianism and human rights. Therefore, we would like to invite all academics around the world to participate in creating this kind of online network following the good tradition of scholarly correspondence and collegial cooperation. Let’s see where it will lead us…