JHIL Article: Human Rights for and against Empire

In March 2014 Oliver Dörr (Osnabrück), Marc Frey (Munich), and Jörn Axel Kämmerer (Hamburg) organized the Hamburg Symposium on Colonialism and International Law at the Bucerius Law School. Some of papers of the conference have now been published as articles in the new issue of the Journal of the history of International Law.



My own article deals with the topic of  Human Rights for and against Empire – Legal and Public Discourses in the Age of Decolonisation (JHIL, Vol. 18, 2016, p. 317-338). Against the background of an ongoing debate about the role of human rights in the age of decolonization this essay approaches the issue from two different angles. It concentrates on the paradoxical situation that anti-colonial movements as well as colonial powers instrumentalized international human rights documents such as the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the European Conventions on Human Rights for achieving their political goals. In combining legal and public discourses in a significant way both sides accused each other of gross human rights violations while at the same time presenting themselves as respecting and even guaranteeing fundamental human rights. Especially during the course of the wars of decolonization after 1945 this phenomena became obvious in various diplomatic debates at the United Nations and made universal rights a diplomatic pawn in international debates.

For this recent issue of the JHIL see:


Humanitarianism in Historical Perspective

Workshop at the European University Institute, Florence
Report by Johannes Paulmann (IEG, Mainz)

Florenz 2015_21

The workshop participants at the terrace of Villa Schifanoia (from left to right): Alexandra Pfeiff, Simon Stevens, Fabian Klose, Johannes Paulmann, Emily Baughan, Semih Çelik, and Dirk Moses.

On 25th November 2015, scholars met at the EUI to discuss recent research on the history of humanitarianism. Dirk Moses (EUI), who convened the workshop, opened the day with remarks on the controversial nature of humanitarianism. What for some is a heroic movement that ended the slave trade is for others the rhetorical handmaiden of the European empires that partitioned Africa in the name of ending slavery and introducing civilization in the late nineteenth century. New research is historicizing these impressions, debates, and associated notions of humanity, humanitarian aid, humanitarian intervention, human rights and genocide prevention.

Johannes Paulmann (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz) started the proceedings with a paper on ‘The Humanitarian Narrative in Context: From Mission and Empire to Cold War and Decolonization’. Adapting Didier Fassin’s notion of ‘humanitarian reason’, he discussed the changing rhetoric and visual means which are employed to form a bond between those who are suffering and those who care to help. While contemporary scholarly critique of crisis relief questions the narrative which leads readers and spectators to assume that ameliorative action is possible, effective and therefore morally required, the ‘emergency imaginary’ (Craig Calhoun) has made responding to disasters by quickly delivering assistance worldwide one of the modalities of globalization carrying moral imperatives for immediate actions. Presenting two historical examples, with a focus on bodily images, Paulmann then analysed the display of mutilations during the Congo reform campaign in the context of missionaries’ drive for saving souls around 1900 and concluded with a documentary film on a West German civilian hospital ship during the Vietnam War. These images were embedded in a narrative of Red Cross neutral humanitarian action and the ambiguous attempts to keep one’s distance to bodily harm, the politics of war, and later also towards refugees. Late 1970s humanitarian reason appeared strikingly similar made up with regard to the politics of solidarity and inequality we presently witness in Europe.

Humanitarian military intervention was the topic Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz) presented under the title ‘Enforcing Humanity: A Genealogy of Humanitarian Intervention’. He explored the history of intervention which, in contrast to claims by political scientist, reaches back to the early nineteenth century when a key transition unfolded from the protection of specific co-religious groups to protection ‘in the name of humanity’. Based on extensive archival research, he highlighted the centrality of the suppression of slave-trading for establishing the practice of humanitarian intervention before its inclusion in the body of international law towards the end of the nineteenth century. This has not been fully acknowledged in recent research. Klose also emphasized that the interventionist discourse was not a human rights discourse. ‘In the name of humanity’, at the time did not imply universal individual rights or even less so equality. Humanity as a legal norm to be enforced by states was limited to the notion of a common humanity which was open to numerous differentiations, categorizations, and hierarchies.

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Conference on Decolonization and Cold War Implications on War Crimes Trials in Asia, 1945-1954

Conference Report: “Rethinking Justice? Decolonization, Cold War, and Asian War Crimes Trials after 1945”, Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, Heidelberg (organizer: Dr. Kerstin von Lingenwww.transcultural-justice.uni-hd.de ), October 26-29, 2014


The first day of the conference began on the evening of 26 October. Kerstin von Lingen, leader of JRG ‘Transcultural Justice’ and principal organizer of the conference, gave an introductory speech where she highlighted how war crimes trials in Asia offered a crucial legal, political, and moral-ideological watershed through which some of the initial contestations of decolonization and Cold War were played out. She argued that the trials should not be seen in isolation, but as part of this broader global politics, and also as an integral stage in the emergence of new universalistic norms of international humanitarian law. Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institute of European History Mainz) suggested that in spite of the emergence of these new norms, the traditional colonial powers (he took the specific examples of Britain and France) were reluctant to accept these standards, since their acceptance would have restricted the potential to use violent force to maintain domination in the colonies in Africa and Asia.

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Anthropology and Humanitarianism – Reading by a Historian

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.

US Marine CH-53 Sea Stallion deliver a sling load of wheat donated by the people of Australia, Somalia 1993 (Photo: PHCM Terry Mitchell) http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Aus_wheat_in_Somalia.jpg

Operation RESTORE HOPE, Somalia 1993

(Photo: PHCM Terry Mitchell)

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.

Journal for Human Rights: Special Issue on “Human Rights and Violence”

The Journal of Human Rights/Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte (zfmr) is a multidisciplinary quarterly journal, which publishes articles concerning the issues of human rights in English and German. Its aim is to serve as an interdisciplinary forum for the public discussion and social-theoretic reflection of questions of human rights. The journal reaches out especially to scholars working in all fields of political science, history, philosophy, sociology, and legal theory as well as politicians, policy makers and decision makers in politics, economy, and civil society. It seeks to intensive significantly the debate about human rights in political science and in related disciplines and offers wide-ranging approaches to the subject including both theoretic and empirical perspectives.


The main objective of the Journal of Human Rights is “to make a significant scholarly contribution to the theory of human rights and enrich and expand discourses about rights in practical political, economic, and social contexts. The journal is committed to the systematic development of the human rights subfield in political science and to the broadening the debate on human rights at all levels.”

Its recent issue focuses on the topic of “Human Rights and Violence” and contains a broad variety of articles from different disciplines. You can have a look at the abstracts of all contributions @:http://www.zeitschriftfuermenschenrechte.de/

In this issue I have published a contribution on the emergence and limits of the human rights regime after 1945 with a special reference to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 in the colonial context. Continue reading

EGO Article on Decolonization

The age of decolonization is of crucial importance for our understanding of today’s world. By dissolving colonial rule around the world this process led to the emergence of new sovereign states, thereby permanently changing international relations and international law. It is especially the third phase of decolonization which is the one most closely associated with the term “decolonization” in the present and which refers to the end of European colonial rule after 1945. The process of the dissolution of the European overseas empires had a profound effect on the course of international history during the 20th century. This process occurred relatively quickly given that colonial rule had existed in some cases for a number of centuries. Only after just 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, all the colonial empires had disappeared from the global map.

This transformation proceeded by no means linearly or according to a set pattern. There were considerable differences between the various world regions, with cases of peaceful transition as well as extremely violent wars of decolonization. The colonial policies and strategic aims of the colonial powers and the strength of the respective anticolonial movements were the decisive factors. Additionally the Cold War confrontation and the growing importance of international organizations such as the United Nations were central aspects of the international context in which the third phase of decolonization occurred and they had a decisive effect on that process.

Concerning this international context various contributions on hhr has already linked the dissolution of European colonial empires with the debates on universal human rights as well as humanitarianism. Continue reading

Rhetoric of Massacre and Reprisal in Algeria’s War of Independence

Martin Thomas

Director, Centre for the Study of War, State and Society, University of Exeter

Cross-posted from http://imperialglobalexeter.com/


There has long been agreement among historians of Algeria’s violent decolonization that particular massacres and, more particularly, the retributions they provoked, decisively altered the nature of the conflict. Massacre, it is averred, changed the cultural codes, the military rules, and the permissible limits to mass violence within Algeria’s population and between French security forces and local insurgents.

Why this should be the case remains harder to explain. The demonstrative horror of mass killing intentionally shrinks the middle ground. It destroys the prospects for compromise, denying political and personal space to the otherwise non-committal. Meant to polarize, its violence signifies the ultimate rhetoric of shock. Little wonder that historians of Algeria’s war concur that massacres served as decisive conflict escalators, whether strategically, symbolically, or both.

This escalatory dynamic is something with which analysts of asymmetric warfare, civil conflict and revolutionary insurgencies – not to mention the witnesses to such dreadful events – have long been familiar.[1] Less well understood is the part played by rhetoric in propagating the messages that the perpetrators of such massacres wanted to convey. Did the mass killing of civilians during the Algerian War represent an extreme iteration of what Charles Tilly identified as the ‘repertoire of protest’? Were such actions rendered logical to some because opportunities to influence the actions of the state otherwise were so limited? In the Algerian Revolution as in the French, violence, remained a last resort for the marginalized, not the first.[2]

To follow Tilly’s logic, the repressive action of colonial authorities rather than the FLN’s ruthlessness must be held accountable for precipitating such killings.[3] This was certainly the FLN’s assertion but it was hotly contested by French authorities at the time as their own propaganda sought to prove. (see figure below).


One of the least gruesome images from a 1957 Algiers government booklet, Mélouza et Wagram accusent showing Berber women grieving over children’s corpses after a village massacre carried out in reprisal for villagers’ support of the FLN’s party rival. Continue reading

Public Lecture “Humanitarianism on Trial” by Prof. Dr. Andrew Thompson

Prof. Dr. Andrew Thompson, University of Exeter, will speak at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz on the topic  “Humanitarianism on Trial. How a global system of aid and development emerged through the end of empire”.

This public lecture will take place on Monday, 05th May 2014, at 06:30 p.m.


Prof. Thompson will be visiting scholar at the Leibniz Institute of European History in May 2014. His research focuses on the relationships between British, Imperial and Global histories. One major strand of his interests has been the effects of empire on British private and public life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Another has been the study of imperial migrations, including the emigration of people from Britain to the ‘new’ world before 1945, and the immigration of people from Britain’s former colonies after 1945. He has also written about the history of colonial South Africa, informal empire in Latin America, and public memories of empire.

The entrance to the public lecture is free and guests are welcome!

You find additional information at the IEG website:


Dutch Imperial Past Returns to Haunt the Netherlands

Paul Doolan
University of Zurich and Zurich International School

Cross-posted from http://imperialglobalexeter.com/


In July 2012 a Dutch national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos on its front page showing Dutch soldiers brutally shooting and killing unarmed victims in a mass grave. The images were shocking to a nation that prides itself as being upright and humanitarian. Never mind that the photos were nearly 70 years old. Found in a rubbish tip, they were, in fact, the first ever photos to be published of Dutch soldiers killing Indonesians during a war of decolonization that is still euphemistically referred to as a “Police Action.”

De Volskrant

Photos in De Volkskrant, 10 July 2012.

Why did it take so long for such images to reach the public?

Just a month earlier Dutch TV news, as well as national newspapers, had reported that three leading Dutch historical research institutes were calling upon the Dutch government to allocate funds in order to initiate a major research project to uncover what had happened in the Dutch East Indies during the period of decolonization, 1945-1949. The government decided, perhaps not all that surprisingly, to do no such thing. In an interview in December 2013, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, had to defend his change of heart, because as a member of Parliament he had supported the call for a full-scale investigation into Dutch atrocities. However, once appointed minister, he quickly changed his mind. He now claimed that such research would “bring harm to our relationship with Indonesia. And that is not in the Dutch interest.”[1] In other words, business comes before coming to terms with Dutch decolonization.

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CfP: Human Rights and Emergency Law in Independence Era Africa

Call for Papers from Meredith Terretta, University of Ottawa:

This proposed panel for the African Studies Association Conference, taking place from 20 to 23 November 2014 in Indianapolis, USA, takes up one of the conference themes: Histories and ethnographies of human rights, humanitarian intervention, and social movements. It explores the ways in which African activists from throughout the continent used human rights talk as political and legal expression before and after official independence. Conversely, it examines the ways in which colonial and/or postcolonial regimes used exceptional legislation (such as state of emergency, preventive detention, or anti-subversion laws) to circumvent human rights principles as they became applicable to African territories under European rule in the postwar era. Colleagues and advanced graduate students who have worked in the Migrated Archive (UK), in recently declassified files in other colonial holdings, in human rights NGOs records or in UN archives are especially invited to participate. Continue reading

Imperial & Global Forum, University of Exeter

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 Palen the blog connects in a significant way historians working in this research field and offers a dynamic exploration of imperial history.


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Additional Article on “Human Rights and Decolonization”

Additionally to my last post I would like to point to the article “’We Had Been Fooled into Thinking that the UN Watches over the Entire World’: Human Rights, UN Trust Territories, and Africa’s Decolonization” by Meredith Terretta, who is Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa. In her interesting article Meredith Terretta emphasizes the importance of international human rights in the context of decolonization. By focusing on the case of the British and French Cameroons she demonstrates  “that African nationalists and the Western anti-imperial human rights advocates who supported them viewed UN Trust Territories as the most politically and legally viable channel through which to address the human rights abuses particular to colonial rule.” In her article she challenges the notion prominently articulated by Jan Eckel (http://www.humanityjournal.org/humanity-volume-1-issue-1/human-rights-and-decolonization-new-perspectives-and-open-questions) and Sam Moyn (Chapter 3 “Why Anticolonialism Wasn’t a Human Rights Movement”, in The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge (M.A.) 2010, p. 84-119.), that human rights ideas only played an insignificant role in the anti-colonial struggle for independence.

You will find Meredith Terretta’s essay in:

Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, May 2012, p. 329-360


or online at:


Discussion on “Human Rights and Decolonization”

Additionally to my last post concerning the publication of my book “Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence. The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria” and the related research on “Human Rights and Decolonization” I would like to point to the important publication of Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights, Philadelphia 2010 (http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14717.html). In his book Roland Burke, Lecturer at La Trobe University Melbourne, analyzes the changing impact of decolonization on the UN human rights program. In showing the crucial importance of Third World influence on the international human rights agenda he offers an inspiring new perspective. You will find my review of the book at:



In October 2010 “humanity” (editor: Sam Moyn, Columbia University, New York), a peer-reviewed academic journal, started to publish research and reflections on human rights, humanitarianism, and development in the modern and contemporary world. I strongly recommend the journal and the related blog, which you can find at: http://www.humanityjournal.org/blog


In the first issue of “humanity” Jan Eckel, historian at the University of Freiburg, wrote an essay review on Roland’s book and the German version of my book “Menschenrechte im Schatten kolonialer Gewalt” (https://www.oldenbourg-verlag.de/wissenschaftsverlag/menschenrechte-im-schatten-kolonialer-gewalt/9783486588842), in which he raised some interesting questions. On the journal’s blog Roland and I used the opportunity to respond to Jan’s essay review and we started a fruitful discussion on the topic of “human rights and decolonization”.

If you are interested in following the discussion you will find



News: Publication of “Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence”

I am happy to let you know that my book “Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence. The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria” has been recently published by The University of Pennsylvanian Press (for more details see: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15084.html).


My book, the English translation of my dissertation “Menschenrechte im Schatten kolonialer Gewalt” (originally published in German by Oldenbourg in 2009), analyzes the relationship between the emergence of human rights concepts after 1945 and the increasing radicalization of colonial violence. Based on previously inaccessible material from the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, this comparative study uses the Mau Mau War (1952–1956) and the Algerian War (1954–1962) as case studies to examine the policies of two major imperial powers, Britain and France. By analyzing the colonial states of emergency, counterinsurgency strategy, and the significance of humanitarian international law in both conflicts I show that the crimes on the part of Western powers that promoted human rights in other areas of the world were diametrically opposed to the growing global acceptance of freedom, equality, self-determination, and universal rights. In my book I want to demonstrate the mutually impacting histories of international human rights and decolonization.

I hope my book will find a broad international readership and I am looking forward to reactions and comments.