Disasters, Emergencies and Relief. Global Perspectives on the History of Humanitarian Intervention since the 1970s

Disasters, Emergencies and Relief. Global Perspectives on the History of Humanitarian Intervention since the 1970s

Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History; Berlin Center for Cold War Studies; Lehrstuhl für Europäische Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; Projekthaus Europa; Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
12.10.2022 - 14.10.2022
Bastian Högg, Neuere und Neueste Geschichte, Universität Augsburg

Has aid gone too far? How else should one explain those images of powerful failure – the tragedy of the soon much-discussed humanitarian interventions and the peacekeeping forces in the 1990s in Rwanda, in the civil war in Somalia and in Yugoslavia? Making peace (if necessary) with weapons? Until recently, humanitarian intervention was still considered a “present without a long, complex history”. Only a few years ago, historians began to uncover the numerous traces of humanitarian intervention in the 19th century, a concept of intervention that had usually been linked to the history of the 1990s.1 The latter was probably also due to the many interpretations offered by the legal and political sciences, which had emerged in the debate on interventions – which have their own priorities.

The context of aid that preceded the 1990s, and thus the structures, debates and practices that were already inherent in the Cold War and in colonialism itself, have been rarely examined. However, these contexts are what led to the “open military operations” after the end of the Cold War.2 These neglected traces of historical humanitarian intervention were the focus of an international conference that took place at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich from 12-14 October 2022. The conference organizers set themselves the task of developing global perspectives on the history of interventionism since the 1970s in an interdisciplinary exchange.

The conference identified famine – and new procedures of negotiating need – as an anchor of this history. The first panel was dedicated to these topics. PATRICK MERZIGER (Leipzig) made clear how the structure of humanitarian aid began to change in the 1980s, especially when compared to earlier aid campaigns, including Biafra. Initiatives such as the German Emergency Committee, which was founded by Rupert Neudeck, began to tie together societal forces that had been on the move after 1968 and draw attention to new crisis regions that had been neglected during the Cold War – first to Southeast Asia and later to Somalia, where the committee became active in 1980. However, this new global reach came with a price: While the new initiatives considered aid as immediate and ad-hoc – unlike long-term campaigns by church organizations –, it was neither permanent nor strategically designed.

TOBIAS HOF (Toronto) also underlined how these negotiation processes shifted in the 1970s and 1980s. His argument centred on the famine that accompanied the Ethiopian civil war in 1984. The conflict was significant because it was accompanied by particularly complex conditions and thus expanded the rules of humanitarian aid. Many of those affected by the famine did not flee into Sudan but remained in the Sudanese-Ethiopian border region or remote areas in Eritrea and Tigray. In these hard-to-reach regions, however, “Western” aid operations were at most tolerated by the Ethiopian government. Thus, according to Hof, the 1970/80s Ethiopian famines must be considered a pivotal moment in the transformation from humanitarian assistance to humanitarian intervention and in the emergence of new relationships between the Global North and the Global South.

At the same time, aid was always political and thus, as SUSANNE MASLANKA (Berlin) showed in her contribution, posed great challenges to both recipients and providers: The looming hunger crisis in 1990/1991 in the Soviet Union quickly became a highly political matter for Germany. In 1990, the Two-Plus-Four Treaty had not yet been signed and the Federal Republic was anxious to stabilise Gorbachev’s government in a critical phase. The public announcement of aid was followed by a committed campaign that made the Soviet Union look weak, but also highlighted the complex historical relationship between the two states: aid provisions were framed as an expression of gratitude for the end of German division or a gesture of reparation for crimes committed against the citizens of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The observation that humanitarianism has been expanding since the 1970s and has begun to make new demands was also underlined by the contributions of the second panel. AGNES BRESSELAU VON BRESSENSDORF (Berlin) showed how the discussions surrounding aid for refugees of the Afghanistan war (1979-1989) triggered new debates on the role of international politics itself. For some time, aid workers such as the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, Bernard Kouchner, grappled with the difficult situation in the refugee camps and the high risk to aid workers on the ground, and derived from this a “right to interference”. There were also discussions globally and particularly in “Western” countries on how to deal with the "worldwide refugee problem", which became evident not only in Afghanistan. The West German Foreign Office, for example, interpreted “massive flows of refugees” as a threat to international peace and security and proposed ideas for preventive action by the international community. In sum, debates like these have contributed to undermining the sovereignty of states in “regions of crisis”.

RANDALL HANSEN (Toronto) focused in his paper on the reasons behind the enormous increase in refugees since the 1970s. He argued that the intensified conflict over oil, particularly after the 1973 oil crisis, is the key factor behind the increase in forced migration. The First Gulf War was largely due to Saddam Hussein’s interest in oil deposits in Kuwait – and eventually provoked American intervention. The first war produced 3,000,000 refugees; the Second Gulf War another 5,000,000 and facilitated the rise of the “Islamic State”. In total, 15,000,000 people were displaced in the region – as a product of conflicts that, according to Hansen, centred on predominantly one thing: oil.

BERTRAND TAITHE (Manchester) examined the momentous work of NGOs on the ground more closely using the example of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war (1979-1989). In the refugee camps of the war region, NGOs accompanied refugees from the beginning of the war and began to develop new practices of assistance – such as treatment of PTSD. This led to a mutual relationship between the Khmer Rouge regime and the NGOs that survived the end of the war: The regime used the NGOs to legitimise its rule, while Cambodia developed into a laboratory for aid organisations, which was facilitated by the deregulated health care system in the country. This became particularly clear in the treatment of hepatitis C: The virus, which spread in the refugee camps in the 1980s, was first researched and ultimately treated by NGOs.

The third panel complemented these perspectives in several ways. KEVIN O’SULLIVAN (Galway) illustrated how the boundary between human rights and humanitarianism began to dissolve in the late 1970s. The complexes of humanitarianism and human rights, which are often thought of as separate entities, began to move closer together in the 1980s – particularly in the context of the revolutionary unrest in El Salvador. The Salvadorian bishop Óscar Romero developed a new language of justice based on liberation theology, which was decisive for this development. According to O’Sullivan, this new language helped draw attention to violence and humanitarian problems without addressing existing power relations. Consequently, this language was accepted by “Western” states and aid organisations.

FLAVIA GASBARRI (London) also subjected the history of humanitarian intervention to a critical re-reading. UN intervention arm UNITAF, which had been active in Somalia since 1993 and had come under criticism primarily because of U.S. leadership and the Black Hawk Down Incident, was considered key to understanding the UN’s reaction to the genocide in Rwanda a few years later. However, the failed UN intervention in Somalia did not have a decisive influence over subsequent U.S. foreign policy – despite the intense media coverage of the deaths of U.S. soldiers. Gasbarri showed that key passages of the Presidential Decision Directive 25, which was blamed for the later withdrawal from Somalia, was not written after, but before the incident. First drafts were already circulated in early 1993, arguing that the USA could not permanently assume the role of a world police force.

The fourth and fifth panels critically reviewed the perspective of “Western” aid by asking attendees to consider the agency of the “Global South”, the reach of colonial dynamics and alternatives to “Western thinking”. MATTHEW AYODELE (Stanford) focused on the concept of “economic humanitarianism”. According to Ayodele, the term refers to a process that occurred in several African countries since the 1980s and began with conditional loans issued by the World Bank to countries of the “Global South”. Countries were required to “modernise” themselves economically in various sectors including health care in order to receive the loans. Ayodele used the example of Nigeria, which failed to provide its own health care, to show how aid organisations took over, privatized the sector and imposed their own rules. In sexual morality, for example, they promoted images of a “productive nuclear family” against the background of the “Western” discourse on population.

DONIA HASLER (Fribourg) used the “Red Cross Societies’ Development Programme” to show how colonial dynamics perpetuated in the discourse of aid organisations working in Ghana, which gained independence in 1957. Through the “Red Cross Societies’ Development Programme”, which was initiated in the 1960s, the Ghana Red Cross first came under the auspices of the German Red Cross (1971 to 1974) and later the Swiss Red Cross (1984 to 1988). The “Western” Red Cross societies, however, not only conveyed ideas that were necessary to the establishment of a new organisation; they also imposed specific plans rooted in racist beliefs. The German and the Swiss “partners” regarded the Ghanaians as underdeveloped and incapable of self-government.

The last panel broadened this view through the prism of religion and solidarity. NICOLAS CONSTATIN (Fribourg) focused on the international work of the German Red Cross (DRK) in East Germany. In the GDR, Humanitarian aid was clearly shaped by ideological dogmas, and in the 1970s and 1980s the DRK together with the regime and its socialist “brother states” pursued a strategy of supporting anti-colonial movements. Between 1976 and 1981, it sent more than 26,000,000 East Marks worth of aid to 88 countries, including Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Western Sahara, Angola and Mozambique. The aid workers within the organisation itself also saw their work as a propagandistic arm of the regime, intended to showcase the idea of a peaceful, “socialist humanism”.

KARIN SHAPIRO (Durham) focused on the role of religion in humanitarianism – and particularly on the life and work of the Johannesburg-born clergyman Walter Khotso Makhulu. As president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) between 1975 and 1979 he shaped the Protestant church in a formative phase. While he readjusted the relationship of the WCC to its African members, strove to reduce the unequal position between African and “Western” churches and improve the position of the African members, he also shaped the inner-church debate on refugees. Together with the WCC he tried to find an answer to the plight of refugees, both institutionally and theologically.

Finally, JOSEPH BANGURA (Leuven) emphasised the importance of religion and ecumenism in dealing with disasters from a theological perspective. Using the example of the capital of Sierra Leone – Freetown, a port city particularly vulnerable to disasters – he showed how non-state actors dealt with violence and crises. Between 2014 and 2016, an Ebola epidemic claimed tens of thousands of lives. In 2017 a landslide resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. One answer to these disasters was the newly established Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCL). In this council Muslim, Christian and African religions worked together to ensure that those affected by the catastrophes and their relatives received the appropriate rituals and moral-religious care.

In his concluding remarks, Hansen emphasized that the history of humanitarian intervention can hardly be meaningfully explained without a closer look at the history of humanitarianism itself. This is especially due to the fact that aid was always political and contributed to the (de)stabilisation of regimes: Aid organisations became important actors and were confronted with the (im)possibility of their actions. Humanitarianism can only free itself from this development if it also detaches from its colonial context – and makes visible those actors who were previously described only as the object of aid.

The conference opened new perspectives on and avenues to the history of humanitarianism in the spirit of the more recent discussion on the history of humanitarian intervention. It showed that the old international order had by no means, as Ingeborg Maus polemically pointed out in 2015, fallen “into the hands of the arms industry” in the 1990s. 3 On the contrary: The phenomena of the 1990s, which have received ample attention in political science and law, appear against this background as one thing: A product of a history that centred around the desire to do good.

Conference overview:

Panel I: Famines, Food Aid and Hunger Relief
Chair: Kiran Patel (Munich)

Patrick Merziger (Leipzig): “Chop-Chop Quick Thinkers” and their “Famine Bombers”. German Radical Humanitarianism in the 1980s

Tobias Hof (Toronto): Famine, Civil War and the Politics of Humanitarian Interventionism during the Ethiopian Famines in the 1980s

Susanne Maslanka (Berlin): Fearing a “winter of hunger” – German Emergency Relief Food Supplies for the Soviet Union in 1990/1991

Panel II: Flight, Expulsion and Refugees
Chair: Daniela Hettstedt (München)

Agnes Bresselau von Bressensdorf (Berlin): Humanitarianism between Emergency Relief and Global Politics. Aid Organizations in the Afghan-Pakistani-Borderlands in the 1980s

Randall Hansen (Toronto): Refugees and Drivers of Forced Migration in the Humanitarian Crises of the two Gulf Wars (1990/91 and 2003-2011)

Bertrand Taithe (Manchester): The Changing Nature of Humanitarian Emergencies: Defining Needs from Refugee Camps to Hepatitis C Eradication, 1979-2021

Panel III: (Hidden) Humanitarian Interventionism?
Chair: Marc Frey (Munich)

Kevin O´Sullivan (Galway): Civil War in El Salvador and the Origins of Rights-Based Humanitarianism in the 1980s

Flavia Gasbarri (London): Humanitarian Military Intervention in Somalia 1992. An American Perspective

Panel IV: Humanitarianism between “Neo-Colonialism” and Self-Determination
Chair: Joseph Bosco Bangura

Mathew Oluwaseun Ayodele (Stanford): Humanitarianism as a Neocolonial Project

Donia Hasler (Fribourg): 1980 Ghana Red Cross Society sponsored by Switzerland

Panel V: Solidarity, Religion and Humanitarianism
Chair: Ann-Sophie Schoepfel (München)

Nicolas Constantin (Fribourg): “Für Frieden und sozialistischen Humanismus”. The International Work of the East German Red Cross in the Global South

Karin Adrienne Shapiro (Durham, USA): Walter Khotso Makhulu and the Creation of Refugee Policies for Southern and East Africa, 1960-1990

Joseph Bosco Bangura (Leuven): The Fallen, Floods and Fires of Freetown: Interfaith Engagement with Environmental Disasters in Sierra Leone

1 Fabian Klose, In the Cause of Humanity. Eine Geschichte der humanitären Intervention im langen 19. Jahrhundert, Munich 2019, p. 22.
2 Benjamin Möckel, Endtimes of Human Rights? New Research on the History of Human Rights, in: Neue Politische Literatur 65 (2020), pp. 473-501, p. 486; cf. also Norbert Frei et. al. (eds.), Human Rights and Humanitarian Intervention. Legitimizing State Force since the 1970s, Göttingen 2017.
3 Ingeborg Maus, Menschenrechte, Demokratie und Frieden. Perspectives on Global Organisation, Berlin 2015, p. 11.

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