The difficult second album

My university has just returned to its second semester of teaching. Preparation for teaching, which takes place on a kind of macro level over the Christmas period – finishing course guides, setting reading, finalising assessment – now turns to the micro level – writing lectures, slides and handouts, planning seminars – week in, week out, for different courses and different classes. Alongside this there is the drumbeat of administration, which is sometimes louder and faster, sometimes slower and quieter, but which is a constant of our working life. And amidst these two things (plus a few others) I had the goal today of spending some time on research. It is intimidating. I thought as a warm-up I would write about why.

One of my current research interests is the history of the laws of war, or international humanitarian law (IHL).[1] I am not a lawyer, so I am not talking about the evolution of the law, or previous experience as precedent, or other things that I imagine make the past relevant to legal practice. I am interested in the politics of how the laws were written, what meaning this process held for different people engaged with or affected by it, and what other ideas and practices the law was (and hence still is) enmeshed with. Specifically, I am thinking about the writing of Additional Protocols I and II, finalised in 1977 following several years of discussions. These discussions were at times very fiery, fuelled by contestation of colonial rule and the campaign for national liberation. I want to explore what people who weren’t necessarily jurists, but who were humanitarians, made of these arguments about reforming the law, and whether it mattered to how they conceived of their work in the field.

Moving into the historiography of law has meant taking on two new sets of literature: the historians of law as well as the lawyers. They all write fascinating, challenging stuff. The history of law is a lively field that asks big questions, in my period often related to the law’s relationship with decolonisation (see some social media reflections here and a recent, important article here). Despite this work, the coming into being of the Additional Protocols remains an example of what historian Mark Mazower called the ‘ghetto within a ghetto’ of ‘the history of how law has been deployed in international politics’.[2] It is hiding in plain sight, sitting across histories of human rights, humanitarianism, activism, empire and decolonisation.

This field connects with some of the themes that I worked on in my PhD, which was published in the form of this book a couple of years ago. My research was also funded, generously, by the British Academy through their postdoctoral fellowship scheme. This let me do a lot of archival research in expensive places such as Geneva, Bern, New York, and DC. I am also fortunate in that most of my teaching either directly or circuitously enriches my own learning; much of the reading I do to prepare classes can be related to my research in one way or another.

But working on new topics and new materials is slow going. The familiar contours of doctoral research have given way to a new landscape, exciting yet also daunting. Impostor syndrome casts a long shadow, exacerbated by entering the world of scholars who have already devoted years to such questions. Where I used to be able to turn to my research in a spare hour here or there, do a day’s work after a month of other tasks, building new expertise seems to need fuller and more regular nourishment. This is a real challenge amongst the myriad and taxing demands of a new post. ‘Difficult second album’ is the phrase that comes to mind.

So what to do? Minimum amounts of research time pretty much each week, no matter the state of those other demands, seems to be the only way. (That is far, far easier said than done.) Accepting that confidence may drop as horizons shift, but also trying to remember that learning – and a restored confidence – will come with time. Looking at the small steps forward instead of the blank spaces that still lie beyond them. Thinking back on some of these ideas.  And seeking – and taking – advice from those who have walked this terrain before.


[1] These terms are not, to specialist ears, interchangeable. Here’s one piece that helps to understand why:

[2] Mark Mazower, ‘The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950’, The Historical Journal 47, 2 (2004), 380.


The Slow ECR

In the past few days, I have taken pleasure and encouragement from reading The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. Its subtitle lays out the authors’ aim: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.

To apply the word ‘pleasure’ to reading it was intentional. The Slow Professor advocates restoring our sense of enjoyment of the labour that we do – being able to recognise and value the slowness of building understanding through research, or acknowledging that our teaching will be more effective if it is also enjoyable. Berg and Seeber’s ‘manifesto’ describes slow professors as ‘acting purposefully, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience.’[1]

The Slow Professor is addressed to academics generally, not to those at a particular stage of their career (‘professor’ being a term and a title that is used differently in North America than the UK). But as I was thinking about how its principles might inform my own professional practice, I wondered what it could mean to be a ‘slow ECR’.

Of course, at a basic level, to say ‘slow ECR’ is to miss the point. The adoption of acronyms and other jargon – in this case, for ‘early career researcher’ – is part of the culture of speed, bureaucratic targets, and corporate commodification that Berg and Seeber seek to challenge. More profoundly, though, the pressures that they and others describe (such as Stefan Collini, whom they quote on current academic life being ‘distracted, numbers-swamped, audit-crazed, grant-chasing…far removed from classical ideals of the contemplative life’[2]) take distinctive forms when you’re starting out.

In the first few years in a job, you are likely to be writing new lectures and often new entire courses. That is, you will be putting hours of preparation into your teaching in a way distinct from those who have already delivered and consolidated their lectures and classes. You are also likely to be doing some kind of professional accreditation, involving training sessions and reflective tasks, which spreads your attention even thinner. Everyone in the university has their performance monitored, but as an early-career staff member you can be monitored more or differently; this may be part of the accreditation, and will certainly be part of your probation. Research publications are a crucial part of landing a permanent job, so taking your time over them can feel risky, yet pushing them out too fast can lead to rejections or (even more frustrating?) to published pieces that fall short of your hopes.

I work in an institute where the majority of academic staff members are in the early part of their careers. With a large proportion of early-career staff comes a wonderful sense of collegiality and shared experience. But peer support takes an investment of time and emotional energy. It has limits. A dominance of early-career perspectives, in part because of the factors outlined above, can also compound the feeling of ‘time poverty’ and anxieties about performance. To cultivate slowness in such an environment is not necessarily more difficult than in other places, but it undeniably requires some careful, contextual reflection. That reflection is, I think, not a precursor to becoming a slow professor but a part of the process, and I wrote this blog to begin it.



[1] Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2016), x.

[2] Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London: Penguin, 2012), 19.

The manipulation of aid

A small but vigorous cottage industry has grown up around the instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid. It sustains both researchers and journalists. Perhaps the most pointed in the latter category is the Dutch writer Linda Polman, whose book denounced the use of aid by warmongers, the corrupt, and génocidaires, and the powerlessness of relief workers to prevent it.1 We need not look far beyond the title of the 2012 documentary, The Trouble with Aid, to know that its approach dovetails with Polman’s view.2 As one op-ed put it, without needing to explain, ‘Diverting humanitarian aid is despicable.’3 And while, as in that piece, the current emphasis on terrorist organisations can intensify the emotional impact, neither the accusation itself nor the delegitimisation of those subject to it are terribly new.

These critiques find unhappy allies in the frustration of analysts associated with the humanitarian sector – independent evaluators, researchers based in think-tanks or non-governmental organisations, those who have split their careers between practice and academia. Fiona Terry’s canonical Condemned to Repeat? (note the question mark), published in 2002, offered detail and incisive empirical studies of several contexts where humanitarian aid served purposes other than those for which it was intended.4 It was more recently joined by a series of contributions, from case studies to historical reflections, in a volume edited by Antonio Donini.5 Hugo Slim has approached these questions through the lens of ethical decision-making.6

Rounding out these discussions are the contributions of academic researchers less evidently linked to the humanitarian sector – though of course many careers are hybrid and influences mutual. A significant body of research in this field relates to situations involving forced displacement. The notion of ‘refugee-warrior communities’ – highly conscious, organised, militarily active – derives from the classic text Escape from Violence, drawing attention to the political life of people whom aid agencies too often consider and portray as universal victims.7 The genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath occupy a significant place in this literature, and in other attempts to capture the challenges of ethical decision-making – and, indeed, was crucial in the coalescing of debates about the manipulation of aid.8

One contribution that takes events in Rwanda and Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as central is Sarah Kenyon Lischer’s work on humanitarian assistance as a cause of conflict. Lischer herself points to the cottage industry, which has only grown since her work was published. In 2003 she observed how little explanatory space there was between the ‘chroniclers of international humanitarian aid’s unintended consequences’ claiming ‘the entire system is malignant’, and the ‘defenders of the relief regime’ who place blame everywhere other than humanitarian organisations.9 Lischer’s taxonomies of the mechanisms of manipulation, profiles of refugee communities, and attitudes of states, attempts to explain how and why aid has exacerbated conflict. That is, she seeks a space of understanding, not of accusation or defence.

Nonetheless, Lischer’s reasoning starts from the logic of the aid agency. This is especially clear in her concluding sections on what humanitarian organisations can do when faced with the manipulation of aid. She is certainly not alone in this, and it is a normative position that is difficult to break out away from. The laudable raison d’être of humanitarian organisations is more or less taken for granted, even as the unintended consequences of their actions, and some of the perverse organisational pressures they face and create, are recognised and analysed. The best interests of people affected by conflict are conflated with the priorities of aid organisations, even as studies recognise the gap between them.10

The problem with this assumption is rendered even more starkly if we consider the insights of ethnographic studies of humanitarian projects. Linda Tabar’s research on the rebuilding of Jenin refugee camp, in Jordan, after it was destroyed by Israeli military operations in 2002. Negotiations on planning and design entered a deadlock with the delegation from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) contrasting its universal, ‘neutral’, modernising project with the ‘political’, rights-based claims of the emergency committee representing residents.11 The power of the technocratic aid approach lay in its ability to designate itself as apolitical, to other the emergency committee as partisan and therefore less legitimate, and to withhold resources while its position was being resisted. In Tabar’s analysis, the outcome was a design that facilitated Israeli incursions in residents’ daily lives. To take the priorities of humanitarian organisations as congruent with the interests of affected populations is, as this study demonstrates, problematic at the very least. Yet this assumption underpins much of the thinking around the instrumentalisation of aid.

Some scholars have tried to break away from this language of manipulation and instrumentalisation while working on initiatives that might in others’ hands be characterised in this way. One is Christian Williams, studying the ‘exile camps’ run by the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during their war against white minority rule.12 Another is Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s study of the politics of education as a form of support for – and solidarity with – refugees and migrants.13 Both of these studies focus on the role of southern agents; in Williams’ case, the Namibian liberation movement, in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s case, south-south programmes in the Middle East and Cuba. By combining this perspective with an attention to a chronological dimension – the lives, and afterlives, and recounted lives of the residents – Williams aims to help us ‘rethink “the camp” as well as the nationalist and humanitarian discourses through which camps and their inhabitants are consistently portrayed.’14 (This endeavour will no doubt take a while.)

My interest here is not so much with camps or refugees, much as they might emerge from this discussion as the prime site for reflection on instrumentalisation, but with the wider discourse around humanitarian action. How can we get away from the language of manipulation and instrumentalisation, while still studying how humanitarian action is variously used within conflicts? Would this simply mean adopting the view of the ‘other side’? Would seeking a ‘neutral’ position merely cover up value judgements that are better brought out in the open? This are questions probably unanswerable without discussing the fundamental objectives of research – the project on my mind as I write this, and the role of academic research more generally. Questions, in other words, for another day.



1 Linda Polman, War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times (London: Viking, 2010).

2 Ricardo Pollack (dir.), The Trouble with Aid, first broadcast BBC Four, 9 December 2012.

3 Colin Rubenstein, ‘Diverting humanitarian aid is despicable,’ The Australian, 6 August 2016. Available online at:, accessed 4 April 2017.

4 Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

5 Antonio Donini, The Golden Fleece: Manipulation and Independence in Humanitarian Action (Bloomfield, Conn.: Kumarian, 2012).

6 Hugo Slim, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (London: Hurst, 2015).

7 Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Liisa Malkki, ‘Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization,’ Cultural Anthropology 11:3 (1996): 377-404.

8 See for example Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, On Complicity and Compromise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapter 7: ‘Organizational Complicity: Rwandan Refugee Camps’.

9 Sarah Kenyon Lischer, ‘Collateral Damage: Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict’, International Security 28:1 (2003), 81.

10 See for example Abby Stoddard et al, The State of the Humanitarian System (London: ALNAP, 2015), 72-73.

11 Linda Tabar, ‘The “Urban Redesign” of Jenin Refugee Camp: Humanitarian Intervention and Rational Violence,’ Journal of Palestine Studies 41:2 (2012): 44-61.

12 Christian A. Williams, National Liberation in Postcolonial Southern Africa: An Historical Ethnography of SWAPO’s Exile Camps (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

13 Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from Cuba, North Africa and the Middle East (Oxford: Routledge, 2015).

14 Christian A. Williams, ‘Silence, Voices, and “the Camp”: Perspectives on and from Southern Africa’s Exile Histories, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 3:1 (2012): 65-80.

Questioning humanitarian action in Madagascar


From the Rova of Antananarivo, a former royal site set high on a hill, the view over the Madagascan capital extends for miles. ‘Tana’ – as it is nicknamed – was founded in the seventeenth century, adopted as the capital under French colonisation, and remains the largest city in Madagascar today. It is a lively city, with constant traffic (and traffic jams), houses of wood and brick, built on steep hills. When the rain falls, these hills become torrents.

I was in Tana to participate in an event organised by the Fonds Croix-Rouge Française. Over two days, on 29-30 November, I had the privilege of attending a seminar on the situation, prospects, and limitations of humanitarian action in Madagascar. In the opening session we heard about the oscillations between sudden emergencies and cyclical, chronic crises, the complex needs facing a country that experiences cyclones and floods, but also protracted drought, and where many live in extreme poverty. Repeated political crises have had a major impact on the economy, which is at a lower point now than it was at the time of independence in 1960. This point was powerfully made by researchers from the Institut d’études politiques de Madagascar (IEP), co-hosts of the seminar. ‘In Madagascar we have hardly ever had war,’ we heard, ‘but we have never had peace.’

tana-seminarSpeakers from a range of backgrounds gave their perspectives on how to approach humanitarian action, its relationship with social change, the role of research, and the place and nature of humanitarian ethics. We heard from professors at Madagascan universities – such as the IEP, the University of Antananarivo, and the Catholic University of Madagascar – as well as from representatives of Madagascan and international non-governmental organisations, UN and Red Cross agencies, government representatives, and the private sector. The event was also supported by the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement.

For me, used to humanitarian debates of a different kind, one of the striking features of the discussions in Tana was their grounding in the local difficulties and priorities. While we discussed structures, modes of action, and incentives, this was not in order to speculate about the ‘humanitarian system’ or its ‘architecture’ but to consider the way that aid worked – or not – in situ. The lack of baseline data about the situation in Madagascar emerged as a significant problem on multiple levels, from understanding needs, to evaluating efforts, and communicating the situation to outside audiences.

The Fonds Croix-Rouge Française, based in Paris, supports debates like this through its programme of events, publications, and grants. Its mission is to encourage and promote research on the stakes and principles of humanitarian action. As its President, Professor Jean-François Mattéi, described to me, this meant challenging major divisions: between research and practice, between North and South. That the Fonds also seeks to break down the divide between Francophone and Anglophone communities of academics and practitioners can be seen most clearly in the publications it supports, including the bilingual, collaborative journal Alternatives Humanitaires/Humanitarian Alternatives.

I was a contributor to the first edition of that journal, and had the enormous privilege of
receiving one of the research prizes awarded by the Fonds Croix-Rouge Française in 2016. This was the honour that brought me to Madagascar, offering the opportunity to learn about the country and to make connections with tana-groupthose I met there. It also allowed me to meet two inspirational researchers: Kanto Jude Ramanamahefa, a medical anthropologist who studies the relationship between patients and caregivers, and Alula Pankhurst, director of the Young Lives project and recipient of the Prix Honorifique for his commitment to research and action in the long term to understand and improve the experiences of young people. To share their company and to become part of the foundation’s group of prize winners was both humbling and uplifting.



Originally posted on

Historiography battles

I was reading the introduction of Steven Jenson’s book The Making of International Human Rights on my morning train. It offers a very clear and, for my purposes, extremely useful exposition of the trends in human rights historiography and what is had made so far of the processes decolonisation. It was a mentally invigorating start to the day, especially as I am learning more about the human rights historiography. But reading Jenson’s overview revived a question that has been niggling at the edges of my thinking for a while. This blog sketches some of these reflections (though please note I reserve the right to disagree with myself in future).

Every so often a conversation springs up about the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights. The activities and ideas that have been referred to under these terms have throughout their histories taken multiple, evolving forms. From this perspective, any effort to establish their divergences and thereby sketch the relationship between them must be chronologically grounded. If not, with humanitarianism changing in time and place and human rights changing in time and place, and both of them meaning different things to different people, we soon gather too many variables for effective comparison over the longue durée.

Steven Jensen’s concern is not with this relationship but with the history of human rights – specifically, with the contributions of agents and forces of the 1960s to the evolution of human rights. He notes: ‘I have wanted to instill chronology and precedent as the main guiding principles in the history of this evolution and as important factors in how human rights historiography is conducted’ (Jensen, 2016: 14). This is a remarkably neat formulation of the assumption underpinning the debates of human rights historiography as it has flourished over the past decade or so. As Jensen explains, and as numerous other contributors have also laid out, much of the argument has been over the relative importance of certain key decades within this evolution: above all the 1940s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. Each decade has its advocates, with the most famous being the assertion in The Last Utopia that human rights ‘emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere’ (Moyn, 2010: 3) and the coalescing of a group of scholars around the notion of a ‘breakthrough’ (Eckel and Moyn, 2013) in human rights at that time. Jensen (2016: 7) pointedly appropriates the term ‘breakthrough’ to describe changes in the early 1960s that, he argues, opened the way for movement on human rights at an international level. Henceforth, we have the 1960s as the ‘human rights foundations’ on which later developments depend.

This insistence on the 1960s brings with it an emphasis on decolonisation as key to the trajectory of human rights in the twentieth century. This point was also made by Roland Burke (2010) in his analysis of human rights diplomacy by third-world states and statesmen; it has additionally been developed in more recent studies (Klose, 2013; Johnson, 2016). Taking the field in a different direction was Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann’s article in Past & Present, which sharpened its focus on the 1990s. Hoffmann (2016) identified two tendency in human rights history: a ‘deep history’ looking at the evolution of rights and a ‘recent history’ debating their historicity (he positioned his contribution as sitting across the two).

The clarity of these arguments about the chronology of human rights relates, I believe, to how rights are conceptualised in scholarship. To quote an illustrative claim from Jensen (2016: 13-14), ‘Human rights first needed to become a recognized international language, then to become legally binding standards in international law, in order to finally be disseminated through advocacy and activism and through institutional infrastructure and political processes.’ This focus on standards, law, and norms, brings with it an emphasis on precedents and an idea of rights as an expanding portfolio of claims. Even though historians of human rights acknowledge – indeed, insist upon – the contingency of this claim-making and the political and imaginative ambiguities inherent in the process, there remains a preference for linearity.

In contrast, the historiography of humanitarianism is more strongly shaped by the awareness of practice – that is, the diverse forms of caring for others that have fallen (or might do so) in the ‘humanitarian’ basket. While studies devoted to practice remain rare, the notion that humanitarian agents are often trying to do something for others – not making claims, but making a difference – encourages a site-specific way of thinking about their histories.  In addition, the capaciousness and elasticity of the term ‘humanitarianism’ make it impossible to define in any definitive way. Nonetheless, the aspect of humanitarianism that relates to the development of international norms and architecture remains fertile terrain for scholars exploring whose contribution mattered most, and why (e.g. Skran, 1995; Watenpaugh, 2010; Cabanes, 2014). With this in mind it is telling that many of the most ambitious linear narratives of the history of humanitarianism have not been produced by straight-up historians, but by scholars who mix historical methods with backgrounds in law, political science, or anthropology, for instance (Ryfman, 2008; Walker and Maxwell, 2009; Barnett, 2011).

While both fields can acknowledge multiplicity, and often seek to restore neglected voices to the record, humanitarian histories can perhaps more fully embrace this endeavour. (How much this has happened already is a question for another day.) The flip side, though, is the possibility that humanitarian histories may remain more fragmented, able to produce comparisons but not to nurture a convincing grand narrative. If this were the case then the historiographies – let alone the histories – may speak to each other only in part.

The Ashes of Kunduz

This is a companion to a piece published on the Reluctant Internationalists blog, about the Kunduz attack and the ‘crisis’ of international humanitarian law. You can read that piece here.

On Saturday 3 October 2015, starting shortly after 2am, US forces repeatedly bombed a hospital in northern Afghanistan run by the international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). That the bombing itself was an appalling and unacceptable incident is not disputed. MSF has claimed that 42 deaths resulted and roughly 30 people were injured, though these estimates could still change. A much larger number will have been indirectly affected by the loss of life and the destruction of a medical facility protected by international law.

The public response of the MSF movement to the Kunduz attack has been forceful. On 6 October a statement from Dr Joanne Liu, President of MSF International, denounced the attack and described some comments from the Afghan Government as amounting to ‘an admission of a war crime’. In a speech delivered the next day in Geneva, Liu declared ‘This was not just an attack on our hospital – it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions.’ MSF’s preliminary report on the incident did not shy away from the great suffering of patients and staff, gruesome details of which also featured in initial and subsequent coverage of the bombing.

A grim chorus placed the tragedy in a long and ignoble tradition of attacks on medical facilities. Denouncing the violence, calling for greater respect for international humanitarian law (IHL), characterising humanitarians in war as the embodiment of humanity – at the same time insisting upon the threat posed and striking a note of defiance – were the key themes in reactions to the Kunduz bombing. They structured the positions of expert commentators and influenced much of the wider coverage. The criminal nature of the attack according to international law became a key theme in reactions to the bombing.

The preference for this legal frame as a way of describing the events was predictable, conditioned by several years of campaigning around violence against humanitarian facilities. This emphasis on the protection of the medical mission and the security of aid workers more broadly is driven by the sense that attacks on aid workers are on the rise. Thus an early response to the Kunduz attack made the case that the ‘war crime’ derived from an American conception of war in which ‘there is no longer a neutral humanitarian space protected by international laws’. Phoebe Wynn-Pope of the Australian Red Cross insisted the attack was ‘not an aberration, but a growing trend’.

Even those troubled by MSF’s campaign largely expressed the problem as a failure to be consistent given the scope of the problem, rather than a challenge to the terms of the reaction. Some of these concerns came from within the MSF movement: in a series of comments first published in French and then in English, Mégo Terzian, President of MSF France, expressed concern about the risk of MSF’s appearing selective in their condemnation. The same subject also drew sharp criticism from Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan. Reeves warned that the MSF movement ran the risk of hypocrisy in the range of public stances it had assumed – or not – on violence against different medical facilities and other civilian or protected persons and objects [be warned that Reeves’ post includes disturbing images]. The contrast between the strident condemnation of US actions in Afghanistan and the comparatively restrained reaction to bombings of medical facilities by the Sudanese Government (Reeves’ focus), or to subsequent bombings of MSF facilities in Zafarana, Syria (November 2015) and in Yemen (October and December 2015 and January 2016), shows how important the political context is when deciding how loud to shout. Moreover, not everyone who wishes to shout is in a position to do so, leading to a seeming hierarchy of suffering wherein attacks on facilities run by high-profile, well-resourced international organisations receive critical coverage, but attacks on other medical or civilian sites do not.

The incidents that do receive coverage rarely result in concrete action. As Imogen Wall put it for IRIN, ‘most allegations of attacks on hospitals don’t advance much beyond a flurry of media interest, furious condemnation and carefully worded PR from the alleged perpetrators.’ With this in mind, and facing major challenges from the beginning in establishing a clear and comprehensive account of what happened, the MSF movement has persistently appealed for an independent investigation into the Kunduz attack. Specifically, it has demanded activation of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), a mechanism for the examination of alleged violations of international humanitarian law. MSF USA ran a petition calling for the IHFFC and presented it with some 545,000 signatures in a photogenic protest at the White House in mid-December. The Start Network, a UK-based network of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), issued a statement in solidarity with MSF. It elevated the Commission to an end in itself, declaring that ‘An IHFFC investigation, regardless of its outcome, will confirm that governments and people around the world value the Geneva Conventions and the protection of humanitarian workers.’

So will the IHFFC save our humanity in warfare? Although the Commission was established by the First Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions, which came into force in 1978, it has never been used. There are various reasons for this, the most pressing being that it must be agreed to by the states involved in the conflict. This is, to put it mildly, highly improbable. Even if it were activated, it would have an investigatory role not a judicial one. It would not make its findings public. It would have no verdict and would limit itself to making recommendations for improving respect of international humanitarian law. But all that is no secret.

There is no reason to think that those behind MSF’s invocation of the IHFFC had any illusions about the slim chance that their calls would be acted upon. The press conferences and public petitions are an advocacy tool. We, too, exposed to the carnage through our television and computer screens, are encouraged to feel horror at the suffering and a compulsion to act. And in fact one of those 545,000 signatures was mine: feeling concerned professionally and personally, and having received information about the petition from people whom I respect and admire, to simply ignore it seemed heartless.

Ultimately, such campaigns are not just about raising awareness. They are designed to increase the political consequences of violating IHL – laws that protect the medical mission as well as other laws – in this hope this will, in the long term, reduce the suffering caused by war. MSF’s campaign about the events of 3 October is therefore only partly about what happened that night. The future evolution and ultimate end to MSF’s quest for truth, so forcefully stated in its early phases, are currently unknown. Whether anything other than a gradually fading outrage will come out of the ashes of Kunduz remains to be seen.

Kunduz: a short bibliography

I am working on a piece on the bombing of MSF’s Kunduz Trauma Centre, for the Reluctant Internationalists blog. While I am thinking it through I thought I’d share a rough list of sources – apologies for the paucity of annotations and complete lack of proper citations but do feel free to share any other references via the comments. It is, of course, in no way intended as either exhaustive or endorsing.


 MSF statements, interviews and factsheet

Reports by MSF, US, and NATO

On the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission

Reactions, commentaries and op-eds

Fact, advocacy, parody

Benjamin Thomas White recently published a blog on the surprising ‘fact’ the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Once surprising because of how very long it was, it is now surprising because, despite being frequently repeated, it turns out not to be true. In the first instance, the data it relies upon is from 2003. If the simple passage of time then doesn’t lead you to think a recount might be necessary, then perhaps the UN’s claim that the global refugee population is now at its highest since the Second World War will. Secondly, the figure didn’t include Palestinian refugees. Thirdly, it wasn’t about camps. And finally, as UNHCR’s own documents stated, it was always a very crude estimate. (You can get the full details on Ben’s blog.)

In discussions after the blog, Jeff Crisp – formerly of UNHCR – drew our attention to a report he wrote on the problems of refugee statistics. It is from 1999, and so predates the 17-year stat. Noting ‘the centrality of statistics’ to aid practice to support refugees as well as the field of refugee studies, he goes on to discuss the various reasons why the numbers have been limited, selective, misleading, contradictory, unreliable, and political. There can be ‘positive’ aspects to this unreliability, he is careful to point out, not only negative ones. And he called for more research into the way that humanitarian organisations make use of statistics in their own advocacy.

Ben’s conclusion (spoiler alert) about the 17-year stat is that, in providing a clean figure suitable for such advocacy, it saves us from having to really think properly about refugees at all. In his words, it ‘reduces the enormous complexity of protracted refugee situations, and the much greater complexity, richness, and difficulty of the lives of the people living through them, to a mere cipher.’

Advocacy, of course, is not all bad. Mainstream engagement with these issues is important for many reasons, and we can’t expect the general public – even the much sought-after ‘interested public’ dear to advocates and researchers alike – to invest time in reading long reports on complicated topics without an obvious direct link to their daily lives. Hell, most of us who do something related for a living struggle to read those reports. And so a number, an idea, a story that captures the core of the message and draws attention to the cause can make a valuable contribution.

Oxfam (largely through the voice of its strategic advisor Duncan Green) calls these things ‘killer facts’. Killer facts are ‘those punchy, memorable, headline-grabbing statistics that are picked up by the media and politicians and have immediate impact.’ I’m not sure whether ’17 years is the average length of stay in a refugee camp’ counts as a killer fact by their definition, but it certainly shows one of the attributes that contributors to the comments section on this post identified: that headline stats can take on lives of their own as they are adopted, repeated, put towards the service of various goals. But because they are designed to be self-evident – shocking in their supposedly bare statement of the world as it is – they tend to be more geared towards forcing conclusions than opening debate. What begins as an advocacy tool can become a truism, and one that is used in justification of particular policies.

Fundraising, different from advocacy but intimately connected to it, can bring its own problems. The perceived need to tug at the heartstrings of potential donors has led organisations to continue using degrading, stereotyping, and at times dehumanising images of those they claim to assist, despite the existence of codes of conduct that provide guidelines for appropriate imagery. The desire to promote aid as a force of good has produced the Twitter hashtag #humanitarianheroes as well as this profile of DFID’s emergency response team as ‘the magnificent seven’ each with their own superpower – which makes #humanitarianheroes seem downright self-effacing in comparison.

That piece brings us, albeit unintentionally, almost to the realm of parody, and so reminds us of one of the ways that advocacy (of a kind) can indeed reintroduce complexity through humour, satire, and self-awareness. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Radi-Aid campaign of Africa for Norway, which challenges stereotypes around who gives what to whom. It’s advocacy in the sense that it wants to make a point about humanitarian action, but the goal is not prescriptive. There are other parodies of the aid industry that poke fun at received truths and draw attention to power imbalances. While humanitarian organisations must manage multiple priorities to construct a practice of critique that is effective, meaningful, but not self-defeating, satire seems to offer an outlet for criticisms of a broad kind, a talking point, and a way of bringing the personal back into the discourse of aid without invading the privacy of particular individuals. Not that I’ve seen a satire of life in a refugee camp – yet…


Today I watched a clip of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott effectively admitting that Australian refugee policy is counter to human rights. His government was the one for the job, Abbott claimed, because any other would ‘quickly succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers’ and fail to police the border properly – that is to say, to punish refugees sufficiently to provide a supposed deterrent. As Sean Kelly noted in the Monthly Today, which is what directed me to Abbott’s comments, ‘The importance of the PM’s words yesterday was that he finally made clear the line that divides the asylum seeker debate in Australia. The government has decided that on one side lies the ability to stop the boats. On the other side are fundamental protections for all people, as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Separately, from a different news source, I discovered that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will be working with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) between May and October to assist and treat people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A joint team will be stationed on board a 40-metre ship to rescue and care for those risking their lives on this journey. The initiative has already faced criticisms that it will only encourage more people to undertake these very perilous journeys – increasing the risk of deaths – and enrich the traffickers who profit from arranging them. (This is also the exact argument that successive Australian governments have used to justify their own inhumane policies.)

But this not the first time that MSF has considered a rescue operation for refugees at sea. The ‘Boat for Vietnam’ of 1978-79 has gone down in MSF mythology as a schism between the innovative and media-savvy founders around Bernard Kouchner and a new generation of aid workers who, notably under the leadership of Claude Malhuret and Rony Brauman, cemented the organisation’s professionalism and prominence. As people fled Vietnam by boat, an appeal published in the French newspaper Le Monde evoked the grave danger facing refugees and the moral obligation to offer them asylum. Their project was for a boat that could rescue refugees directly from the China Sea. In the end, as Kouchner explained in his own account L’Ile de Lumière (1980), the project changed due to diplomatic difficulties and the attitude of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, eventually taking the form of a floating hospital moored at the Malaysian island of Bidong.

Many accounts overstate, or at least misrepresent, the split between different factions within MSF at this time. By the time the hospital boat was operational, Kouchner and like-minded thinkers had already left and the conflation of the boat with MSF’s operations was a source of frustration to those who remained. Yet other members of MSF were not from the outset opposed to the idea of a rescue ship: Malhuret and Brauman had indeed investigated just such a possibility before deeming it impracticable. They were also not opposed to the project’s publicity-seeking approach, though the famous critique from their ally Xavier Emmanuelli entitled ‘A Boat for Saint-Germain des Prés’ did give this impression. More importantly, in the second half of the 1970s, differing conceptions of humanitarian action had begun to divide MSF: the first, with Kouchner as its embodiment, advocated flash interventions and flexibility; the second, associated with Malhuret and Brauman, favoured logistics and organisation. Debates over the Boat for Vietnam brought these tensions to a head.

A rescue boat operation today thus harkens back to a period when MSF was deciding what it stood for. It was a crucial moment of organisational discord. But a return to a rescue operation also continues the strong tradition of protest by MSF and its politically conscious leadership on humanitarian issues.

However, while the MSF movement is willing to take the radical step of being involved in a rescue operation in the Mediterranean, its Australian section has been conspicuously absent from any public condemnation or even debate on refugee policy in that country. As I’ve argued previously, the burden of criticism has largely fallen on lawyers and civil rights groups. Humanitarian organisations, including MSF despite its reputation for ‘speaking out’, have mostly remained silent.

It is not impossible for MSF sections to adopt critical positions regarding their home governments, for instance in France where it has run programmes and campaigns exposing inadequate healthcare for migrants, asylum-seekers and other marginalised groups. But the willingness to take such stands is very much dependent on the culture of each section, including its national context, as well as that of the different operational centres to which sections are attached.

These differences are one of the reasons why MSF is so fascinating to researchers – witness Renée Fox’s ‘quest’ to shine light on its complexities. They are difficult to understand as outsiders but essential to remember when thinking about these issues. How should we interpret MSF’s (or at least MSF Australia’s) ongoing public silence about the suffering of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea in light of its new joint operation with MOAS in the Mediterranean? I’m not sure. But I will take the latter as a cause for hope about the prospects of change in the former.

As for the historical echoes of the rescue boat operation, it’s hard to find much hope in those. Kouchner’s hospital boat treated refugees in Malaysia and its campaigners back in Paris, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, were granted a meeting with French President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing. But for all its high profile, the campaign only managed to secure from Giscard an offer of asylum to some 5,000 refugees – far short of the 45,000 visas the campaigners had proposed. I suppose one could argue it was not the job of humanitarians and intellectuals to influence government policy on refugees. But at least, in various ways, they tried.

Humanitarianism, armed groups and the role of history

The prolonged and destructive conflict in Syria, in which perhaps 1,000 or more armed groups are fighting, has brought the role of armed groups within humanitarian action to a new level of public prominence. It has, however, been on the agenda of humanitarian organisations for some time. An important landmark came in 1991 when, as part of reforms to the international aid architecture, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator was mandated to negotiate with all belligerents in the name of humanitarian assistance. In 2010 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon restated his appeal for engagement with armed groups in the name of protection of civilians. Guidelines have been developed to assist humanitarian organisations engaging with armed groups and organisations such as Geneva Call have devoted their efforts to minimising the impact of conflict on civilians by facilitating the extension of international humanitarian law (IHL), which remains state-centric, to non-state armed groups.

A significant body of research has investigated the terms on which humanitarian organisations engage with armed groups, the strategies both sides use, and to a certain extent the outcomes of this engagement for people living in conflict – the latter question being an extremely difficult one to attribute to specific factors. While some organisations, notably Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have opened up their own practices for reflection, other organisations have contributed by participating in research by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI. The Humanitarian Negotiations Information Portal was established in 2014 to provide easy access to resources on armed groups, humanitarian engagement, and IHL.

A brief search on the portal confirms a problem identified by HPG’s work: that most analyses of interactions between humanitarians and armed groups restrict their frame of reference to a very recent past. The drive to analyse situations where relief work is ongoing, or the wish to capitalise on hard-won expertise before it is dispersed, are good reasons for doing so. Yet this foreshortening limits the analytical resources available and skews the terms of debate with potentially significant implications. In response to these concerns HPG undertook research, to which I am proud to have contributed, on what a historical perspective on engagement with armed groups might offer current debates.

Providing even a provisional answer to this question confronts a number of challenges. Historiography on the relationship between humanitarian organisations and armed groups is extremely inconsistent and poorly developed. Some significant studies remain unpublished, while certain important publications – quite understandably – reflect organisational priorities or agendas. Difficulties in gaining an accurate picture from the archival record were highlighted by a study produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which noted that ‘because engagement with NSAAs [non-state armed actors] has typically been undertaken in the absence of written rules, there exists an unsurprising dearth of comprehensive accounts of engagement.’ In the HPG report I co-authored with Ashley Jackson we went a little further, arguing that ‘acknowledging past compromises can be as difficult as acknowledging current ones and, to some degree, amnesia can be functional.’

The UNHCR report, like other studies by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), represents an important step towards a more historically aware humanitarian practice in this field. But it also betrays the weakness of the current historiographical record. It described the ‘nostalgia’ characterising images of the Cold War period, when engagement with armed groups was perceived to have been ‘more straightforward’ and ‘humanitarian organizations understood where the lines were drawn and with whom they were engaging.’ ‘There were “rules to the game” in the 1980s,’ the report claims, ‘and rebel groups and liberation movements in a bipolar world were perceived to be more predictable and coherent.’ It’s a particularly tempting theory in light of the horrific violence of ISIS against aid workers, journalists, and others subject to its rule and abuses.

At present, however, there is insufficient historical analysis to confirm or deny these assumptions and the sweeping judgements they entail. Tackling this gap is therefore one of the aims of my new research project, which will look at the relationship between national liberation and humanitarian action during the Cold War. As liberation movements fought to win their countries’ independence from colonial rule, humanitarian organisations sought to offer relief and care to those affected by the conflicts. If national liberation was committed primarily to the collective right of self-determination, the humanitarian movement was concerned with the alleviation of individual suffering. Their means and ends were, on face value, clearly distinct from each other’s and often in outright opposition. Yet engagement and at times solidarity between national liberation movements and humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has been an important feature of conflict since the Second World War.

Were the lines more clearly drawn then than they are today? This remains to be seen. Whatever the answer, this research intends to offer an additional resource to a humanitarian sector that does not shy away from criticism, but often seems to lack self-awareness in its autocritique. The aim is not to poke holes in humanitarians’ stories of their own past, but to provide an account of this past that can contribute to solid foundations for the future.