Professor Dr. Helmut Aust and Dr. Esra Demir-Gürsel, Freie Universität Berlin
The workshop looks at the role of history and historical events for the protection of human rights in contemporary Europe that is facing an authoritarian and populist backslide. It brings together three important debates: firstly, the current challenges for the protection of human rights in Europe; secondly, the historical roots of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which was intended to provide an early warning mechanism against a fallback into authoritarianism and totalitarianism and thirdly, the way the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has dealt so far in its case law with historical injustices, i.e. the type of situations it was meant to prevent from arising again. The current rise of authoritarian and populist tendencies poses the risk of turning into a severe threat for a European public order based on the ideals of human rights, the rule of lawand democracy – all of which are essential to securing peace and stability in Europe. The workshop will mapthe strengths and weaknesses of the ECHR system to keep its initial promise in the face of this current challenge. It connects three strands of discussion which have so far been leading separate lives yet need to be seen together. When thinking about the current challenges for the ECHR system it is worthwhile to reflect upon the conditions under which the Convention and its Court were set up. What was the role that the Court should play in upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law when the Convention was drafted? How have these expectations shifted over time? How has the ECHR defined its role when dealing with cases which concerned large scale historical injustices? The workshop will provide a forum for reflection on these issues which are of great importance for the maintenance of peace and stability in Europeand beyond. The way that the European system of human rights protection will deal with these situations is likely to have repercussions on a global scale.
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.