Humanitarianism's Long History- Continuity and Change

This week on Clio's Current we want to examine the history of humanitarianism in order to ask questions about pressing issues in the Arab world, notably in Syria. Before we do so, however, we think it's worthwhile to offer a short overview of the history of international humanitarianism, which stretches into the past much further than most might think.  The second part of this blog post can be found here.

This past winter I had the opportunity to see Tariq Ramadan, one of the world's preeminent scholars of the Middle East, lecture at the University of Guelph. His talk, much like his academic work, demonstrated his intimate knowledge of the region, its politics and cultures. After reflecting on some of the issues Ramadan discussed and the types of questions the audience had posed, I realized that many students of history and international relations, as well as the public at large, focus too narrowly on very specific issues and rarely explore conflict (or reactions to it) with attention to long-term historical developments. Many commentators draw parallels between certain events, which at once can be helpful and problematic, but few writers try to connect broad themes and ideas to today's critical events. One example of this is the way in which the history of humanitarian intervention is understood and taught.

Historians have paid surprisingly little attention to the history of humanitarianism, despite its long pedigree. Consequently, scholars focusing on the topic see the establishment of international organizations, such as the League of Nations but mostly its successor the United Nations, as the cornerstone of humanitarian intervention. This is misleading for a number of reasons, most of which we can't explore here. A fair number of political scientists have tried to explore humanitarian intervention in history, but most inevitably see the foundation of the international state system as the real "start" to humanitarian intervention. It's no surprise that most examples of humanitarian intervention discussed in historical context come from the twentieth century.

Michael Barnett, for example, has claimed "throughout history, religious, spiritual, and philosophical commitments have inspired acts of compassion. If we equate humanitarianism with compassion, then humanitarianism is as old as history." He also observed that at the crux of humanitarian intervention “is nothing less than a revolution in the ethics of care.”

But action, or calls to action, to assist individuals, groups, or states should also take into consideration perceptions of the suffering, for without suffering there is typically no impulse to intervene. This is especially important when considering humanitarianism in an historical perspective. While humanitarianism underwent some kind of revolution in the ethics of care, as Barnett points out, the fundamental issue of suffering has been unexamined in most of the literature.

Two British historians, Simms and Trim, have identified three major elements in an historically sensitive definition of humanitarian intervention: (1) it is carried out in, or intended to affect events within, a foreign state or states—it is an intervention; (2) Aimed at the government of the target state(s), or imposed on and only accepted reluctantly by it/them—it is thus coercive, albeit not necessarily involving use of force; and (3) intended to avert, halt, or prevent recurrence of large-scale mortality, mass atrocities, egregious human rights abuses or other widespread suffering caused by action or deliberate inaction of an authority or state.

Although the third point mentions widespread suffering, I'd go one step further and say that an intervention should occur when the intervening power understands that a group or people is suffering. That way an historical understanding of humanitarianism, both in the pre-modern and modern world, should consider agency and prevailing assumptions that have often dictated and informed why, how, and when organizations and individuals intervene on behalf of others. While this might appear straightforward for interventions in the post-1945 world, it is less so for humanitarian endeavours before the Enlightenment.

So how can we illustrate this point without an extremely lengthy explanation? Since the 1960s, historians and scholars of post-colonialism have shed light on the atrocities inflicted upon indigenous peoples by European colonizers. The abuses of the residential school system in Canada, for example, have recently been given increasing attention. Reflecting on the virulent nature of Eurocentric enterprises, it's difficult to conceive of or try to empathize with why actions such as these occurred in the first place. Yet, to investigate the history of these interventions on the basis of the knowledge, mentalities, and understanding of contemporaries is essential if we are to come to terms with our pasts.

In his study on the origins of comparative ethnology, Anthony Pagden has shown how jurists and theologians worked to justify, or at the very least validate, Spanish dominion over the indigenous peoples of New Spain. The fate of New Spain hinged on an obscure debate held at Valladolid, Spain from 1550-1551 about Aristotelian theory and led largely by two monks, Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, both of whom argued either for or against whether Amerindians were to be slaves by nature. The central point here is that during this period decisions were made about how and in what ways the Spanish were to colonize the peoples who, just a few decades before, were unknown to Europeans. For these thinkers, their right to intervene derived from a set of questions regarding a divine hierarchy. Theologians and ecclesiopolitical leaders were forced to explain the existence of Amerindians and try, often with varying degrees of success, to fit their distant societies within their own framework. The very basic understanding of why Europeans travelled to the so-called “New World”—Gold, Glory, and God—is not too far off.

For the intellectuals of nascent European states, most of whom were also clerics, the most pressing issue involving New Spain and elsewhere was the incorporation of these lands into Christendom. When this proved exceedingly difficult for missionaries, Christianity was forcibly spread using a variety of techniques that aren't pertinent to this discussion. In Europe, both Catholic and Protestant Reformations had torn the very fabric of society and the prospects of saving new souls as opposed to restoring “old” ones was somewhat more promising. This led missionaries and monarchs alike to speculate about validations for settling new territories. Ecclesiastics argued that not converting indigenous communities was tantamount to abuse or assault, since salvation would never be achieved. To spread Christianity through whatever means necessary was, therefore, the most humane act ecclesiopolitical leaders could carry out. Inaction was malicious and not teaching these people the way to salvation was abusive. It was on this basis, though not exclusively, that the Spanish intervened on behalf of what they understood as a suffering population inhabiting an unstructured and theologically unsafe world. This was in fact a humanitarian mission and led by the most influential and important superstructure of the period, the Roman Catholic Church.

Now before I go on, I should say that this is in no way an apology for the brutal treatment of indigenous people in Mesoamerica and elsewhere. But, looking at perceptions of suffering helps us understand how humanitarian intervention has evolved over the centuries. Doing so shows how our notions of intervention on a humanitarian basis have shifted from one grounded in theology to another, more modern one that places human dignity and security at its apogee.

How then can we account for a change in perceptions of suffering, care, and the need to intervene to offer relief?

In the European context, the evolution of liberalism after the Enlightenment expanded how human suffering was conceived.  Leaders of the French Revolution upheld notions of human and corporeal dignity over spiritual ideas that had dominated discourse in previous centuries. These ideas, for example, pepper documents like philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s inspirational work On the Social Contract (1754) or Olympe de GougesDeclaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791).

Suffering was soon understood in a fundamentally different way. A pre-modern understanding of life hinged on the value invested in heavenly salvation, often at the expense of life on earth. This began to give way to an emphasis placed on human happiness in the earthly realm, which in general was less connected to spiritual perpetuity and more to temporal realities. In an era of expanding markets and a growing middle class, the amelioration of suffering soon became associated with providing physical security and economic prosperity, although it's important to note that even into the mid-twentieth century such prosperity was simply unrealistic for most Europeans.

The drafting of international conventions, such as The Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) and various iterations of the Geneva Conventions, was indicative of this legal and perceptual shift. International governance attempted to institutionalize political and economic conflict, which eventually contributed to the longest period of general European peace from 1871 to the eve of the First World War. Nonetheless, these ideals became the essential underpinnings of the most important humanitarian organizations in modern history, the League of Nations and the United Nations.

The basic ideas familiar to today's humanitarian enterprise more or less became firmly rooted in the state system by 1945. So how can we apply this framework to the situation facing the global community today?

In the next post, questions about why we intervene in some countries and not in others will be explored and hopefully we can make some sense about the constantly changing nature of humanitarian intervention.