Now back in Davis.
I have just returned from the first major international conference on the League of Nations in over 30 years. Held at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the conference, entitled, “Towards a New History of the League of Nations,” brought together scholars from around the world to deliver papers on various aspects of the history of the League. Unlike the previous conference – and reflecting a broader generational change in how historians approach transnational institutions and movements – the papers did more than look at how the League failed to prevent World War II and instead examined topics including its work in public health programs, economic agreements, the trafficking of women and children, and its humanitarian projects around the world.
I was part of a panel on humanitarianism and I presented some of my research on the League’s humanitarian work on behalf of the post-Genocide Armenian community in the Middle East. This work is drawn from a book I am writing, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, which will be published by the University of California Press.
The Armenians had faced genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during the war, and had been promised a state in the series of treaties at its end, the borders of which were determined by Woodrow Wilson. These promises were abandoned in the face of the rise of the modern Republic of Turkey and the Soviet Union and Armenians were left stateless and scattered in refugee camps, orphanages and shantytowns throughout the Middle East.
I placed this statelessness and dispossession in the context of the League’s ongoing commitment to the Armenian Nation — a nation without a state — and what it did to help that nation survive.
The paper was also part of a larger discussion going on at the conference and throughout the field on the history of human rights in the 20th Century spurred, in part, by Samuel Moyn’s recent book The Last Utopia. Moyn, emphasizes that human rights as a full-blown ideology in which the rights of individuals exist in a space beyond the state instead of within its legal and moral interstices is of recent origins, the late 1970s in particular and has since the end of the Cold War moved from a political struggle to an ideal and even utopian project considered as beyond politics. Moyn is not without his detractors.
Where then to place the League’s various humanitarian projects, its concern for the “rights of minorities” and its commitment to women and children all of which seem to embody a human rights-based or at least informed reaction to prevailing and historic incidents of inhumanity? This is especially so as in retrospect, these projects appear to have laid the groundwork for contemporary elements of modern human rights law and action, especially for refugees.
Where it is correct to conclude that modern humanitarianism and human rights share conceptions of humanity, it may be too much to assert that they are branches of the same tree. Interwar modern humanitarianism sought to addressed the root causes of human suffering; as defined in the moment, human suffering was not necessarily conceptualized as a rights violation, but rather was constituted more often on other bases. And while contemporary human rights theory includes the possibility that the violation of human rights is a form of suffering, the interwar understanding of why certain categories of people should or should not receive international humanitarian assistance often had very little to do with their human rights per se, and instead usually had more to do with their ethnicity, religion, citizenship and utility to states and ideologies. This conclusion does not exclude the fact that individuals and groups within the working environment of the field of humanitarianism were engaged in forms of struggle, political and otherwise on behalf of universalizing individual rights and limiting the sovereignty of states; and, that these thinkers and activists have discernible roles in the content of the debate that carried over in the post-WWII era and contributed to the broader formal iteration of human rights idealism. Indeed, it is critical to understand how both individual thinkers and elements of the institution —frustrated with the scope of interwar humanitarianism and the multifaceted failures of a haphazard system of group rights that emphasized membership in national communities —shaped later human rights discourse. Yet most importantly, any history of interwar League of Nations’ humanitarianism cannot lose sight of the fact that in theory and practice, it neither challenged nationalism nor colonialism, but rather was articulated with both and often worked to extend the reach of each.
But my view contrasts with the observations made during the conference by the British scholar of International Relations, Barbara Metzger, who has looked at many of the same archives and sources I have and has concluded something slightly different: Namely that the humanitarian work of the League was framed by human rights in practice. I think what is important in her work and what needs to be explored further by human rights historians is how international organizations like the League in working on behalf of refugees, displaced people, trafficked women and children were implementing the practical foundations of the work of human rights. A too narrow focus on the ideological underpinnings of that work ultimately misses the point that after WWI, the international community had, in a very meaningful way, adopted practices (imperfectly and incompletely implemented) that insisted upon the universality of a core of human entitlements-cum-rights that among other things, people not suffer during war, arbitrarily lose their citizenship or be sold across borders.
These kinds of debates and discussions help make human rights history an interesting and important new field.
For some more contrasting views on human rights and the League see:
Jan Herman Burgers, “The Road to San Francisco: The Revival of the Human Rights Idea in the Twentieth Century,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Nov., 1992), 447-477, 451-454.
Mark Mazower “The The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun., 2004), pp. 379-398