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)

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.

Conference Panel “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade – Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism”

As described in one of my earlier posts the Leibniz Institute of European History Mainz successfully applied for the panel “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade -Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism” at the international conference “The Vienna Congress and Its Global Dimensions.”, which takes place from Thursday 18th to Monday 22nd September 2014 at the University of Vienna.

Here are the abstracts our today’s panel papers.


When evaluating the Congress of Vienna of 1814/15, historians traditionally concentrate on the negotiations to redraw the political map of Europe and on the establishment of an order meant to ensure peace on the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. However, the implications of the congress went far beyond the European scope and were directly linked to manifold global issues such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, one of the burning issues of the time. By signing the “Déclaration des 8 Cours, relative à l’Abolition Universelle de la Traite des Nègres” on 8 February 1815 the representatives of the major European powers established for the first time in history a humanitarian norm in international law. The aim of the proposed panel is to investigate the miscellaneous entanglements of this norm-setting process by focusing on the role of religion and religious actors, emerging humanitarianism, international relations and the impact of abolition on the process of Latin-American independence.


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Leibniz-Journal: Issue on Peace and Conflicts

The Leibniz Institut of European History (IEG) Mainz is member of the Leibniz Association, which connects 89 independent research institutions that range in focus from the natural, engineering and environmental sciences via economics, spatial and social sciences to the humanities.

The recent issue of the Leibniz-Journal focuses on the most relevant topic of peace and conflicts in history, international relations and international law. The articles deal with a broad variety of themes reaching from the First World War and the Versailles post-war order to the culture of commemorating war and to most recent conflicts of the 21st century such as in the Ukraine.


Additionally the contribution of Mounia Meiborg discusses critically the concept of humanitarian intervention by referring to research projects at different Leibniz Institutes, including my own about the history of humanitarian intervention here at the IEG Mainz.

If you are interested in reading the article, you will find it @:


Conference: The Congress of Vienna and Its Global Dimension

On the occasion of the bicentenary of the Congress of Vienna, the Association of Latin American and Caribbean  Historians (ADHILAC) is organizing the international conference “The Congress of  Vienna and its Global Dimension”. The central aim of the conference is to investigate the various impacts of the congress of 1814/15 in different parts of the world on various entangled issues. The conference is kindly hosted by the  Institute of History and the Historical Studies Library at the University of  Vienna, and takes place from Thursday 18th to Monday 22nd September 2014. The conference languages are English and Spanish.


For all further information on the conference see:

The Leibniz Institute of European History Mainz successfully applied for a conference panel on the topic “The Congress of Vienna and the Slave Trade -Religion, International Relations and Humanitarianism”. The aim of this panel is to investigate the importance of the international declaration on the abolition of the slave trade in its global perspective by focusing on the role of religion and religious actors, emerging humanitarianism, and international relations. Continue reading

Edited volume “Just and Unjust Military Intervention”

In the light of the ongoing political crisis concerning the Ukraine and Syria the issue of justifying military intervention is high on the agenda of international politics. Despite the recent intense political debate, the theoretical discussion about just and unjust military intervention is much older. It reaches back to the texts of classical European philosophers of the early modern period. Already thinkers such as Francisco Suarez, Alberico Gentili, Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel referred in their work to this crucial issue of international politics.

For that reason Stefano Recchia, Lecturer in International Relations at Cambridge University, and Jennifer M. Welsh, Professor of International Relations at the European University Institute, have recently published the interdisciplinary volume Just and Unjust Military Intervention. European Thinkers from Vitoria to Mill, Cambridge University Press 2013.

Just and Unjust Military Intervention

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Conference: ‘Jewish Questions’ in International Politics. Diplomacy, Rights, and Intervention

Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, Leipzig

Leipzig, Simon Dubnow Institute, Goldschmidt 28,
04103 Leipzig, Gr. Seminarraum

In recent years a growing number of works have studied the role Jews
played in shaping the international system in the 19th and 20th
centuries to defend the rights of Jews in Europe and beyond. Dealing
with ‘Jewish questions’ such as citizenship and emancipation as well as
experiences of persecution, this field of research at the same time
reflects structures and problems of modern international politics more

The Dubnow Institute 2014 annual conference presents fresh studies on
this subject matter and seeks to discuss the historiographical and
conceptual questions that arise from the ‘transnational turn’ in modern
Jewish history. The papers in the conference will explore topics
relating to Jews and European empire, international organization,
transnational philanthropy, humanitarian intervention, minority rights,
human rights and collective claims.

Conference Programme

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Workshop “Human Rights in Global History”, University of Warwick

Charles Walton, Global History & Culture Center of the University of Warwick, is organizing an international  Workshop on “Human Rights in Global History” on 29 January 2014.

Human Rights

The programme includes:

  • Olivier Grenouilleau (University of Paris IV-La Sorbonne):

“Abolition of Slavery and International Rights for Humanitarian Reasons”

  • Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz):

“Enforcing Humanity – The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention”

  • Saul Dubow (University of London, Queen Mary):

“The Problem of Rights for Apartheid and Anti-Apartheid South Africa”

  • Jenny Raflik-Grenouilleau (University of Cergy-Pontoise):

“Human Rights or Peoples’ Rights: Some Reflections”

  • Charles Walton (University of Warwick):

“Rights, Reciprocity and the Politics of Obligation: 18th-20th Centuries”


For more detailed information see:


024 7652 3350 Email:

France in Africa – Imperialist Humanitarian?

Martin Thomas

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

Cross-posted from


As the UN warns of an impending humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic (CAR), what should we make of France’s recent back-to-back interventions in sub-Saharan Africa? Is there an echo in this of the clientalist politics pursued by France in Africa in the years after formal decolonization?

François Hollande, a Socialist president flagging in domestic opinion polls as France languishes in recession, has been credited with exceptional decisiveness in international affairs. The French President’s willingness to restore France’s role as a global policeman became apparent soon after he took office. He lent unflinching support to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, for which France, like Britain, contributed combat aircraft (although maintaining their strike capability was substantially down to the Americans). He made no secret of his disappointment at the successive refusals of London and Washington to endorse missile strikes against President Assad’s Syrian regime in the aftermath of its proven chemical weapons attacks. And French nuclear negotiators among the team that concluded November’s transitional deal with Iran were, it transpires, especially hawkish over monitoring and inspection regimes. Continue reading

Essay on “Humanitarian Intervention and International Jurisdiction in the 19th Century”

Concerning my post on the research and discussion on the topic of the “Courts of Mixed Commission for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and International Human Rights Law” (see my post, 11/10/2013) I would like to point to my article Humanitäre Intervention und internationale Gerichtsbarkeit – Verflechtung militärischer und juristischer Implementierungsmaßnahmen zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts (“Humanitarian Intervention and International Jurisdiction. The Entanglement of Military and Juridical Enforcement in the 19th Century”), which was recently published in the journal: Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift, 72 (2013) Heft 1, p. 1-21.


In this essay I argue that the origins of the phenomena of international jurisdiction and humanitarian intervention can already be found in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The article combines both topics and shows that these two concepts are directly related to one another. Beginning with the international ban of the slave trade at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the analysis focuses on the corresponding implementation machinery created under the significant leadership of Great Britain. This machinery consisted of a hitherto unique combination of military and juridical measures – the naval anti-slave trade patrols and the “Courts of Mixed Commission” – which were both directly dependent on each other. The main argument of the article is that the geneses of the concept of international jurisdiction and humanitarian intervention are significantly entangled with each other and both of their origins lie in the fight against the transatlantic slave trade in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

If you are interested in reading my essay you will find it @:

Review of the edited volume “The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa”

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).

Browne Kaplan

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 @

Research Topics, Part 1: Humanitarianism and Intervention

One aim of our blog is to identify, present, discuss and exchange ideas about emerging research topics in the prospering field of the history of humanitarianism and human rights. Today I would like to point to one of these new research topics, namely “Humanitarianism and Intervention”.

In my current research project ‘In the cause of humanity’ here at the IEG Mainz ( I work about various humanitarian interventions in the 19th century and their impact to an early history of the development of international humanitarian norms. In my eyes it is important to historicize the phenomena of enforcing humanitarian norms by military means and to bridge the experiences of various centuries of “enforcing humanity”. For instance the conference “The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention. Concepts and Practices in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”, which I have organized in October 2012 at the Historischen Kolleg in Munich, sought to investigate the historical emergence of humanitarian intervention in the 19th and 20th centuries. Acknowledging the multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary character of the topic, the conference brought together a group of international experts from different disciplines such as international law, sociology, political science, and history, thus emphasizing the enrichment of research from different perspectives and various approaches.


The four leading themes and questions of the conference were:

  1. Which concepts, actors, and practices of humanitarian intervention can be identified in the 19th and 20th centuries?
  2. Where are the philosophical and legal origins of enforcing humanitarian norms by military means?
  3. Which role does the mobilization of public opinion play in the decision for and against humanitarian intervention?
  4. What is the relationship between the humanitarian justification to protect and the interest of power politics to interfere in the sovereign rights of states? What chances and risks are implied in the concept of humanitarian intervention?

If you are interested in reading the complete conference report by Adrian Franco, you will find it at: