I: Critical history and theoretical framework
A contested history of humanitarian protection
Many contemporary accounts humanitarian protection convey the impression that it began with the Geneva Conventions, providing a relatively unproblematic history of these international laws and related principles. However, to fully understand humanitarian protection today, and to “decentre common sense” (Rostis, 2016, p. 12), it is important to first unpack this accepted history. It is in large part a Western history and a particularly European history rooted in colonialism and imperialism. This is not to say that these perspectives are wrong or misguided, but that they present only a singular view of war and the possible humanitarian responses. This view - originating from a specific place and time -has largely eclipsed all other ways of understanding and practicing protection. Echoing post-colonial scholars, the argument I make here is that humanitarian protection is inevitably understood and acted upon through Western perspectives. It is important that these preconceived understandings are relinquished at the outset of this project in order to advance from a fresh premise, which I take up in the following chapter. With this in mind, this chapter unpacks the accepted history of humanitarian protection in war, revealing how a highly specific protection philosophy became a universal endeavour. In doing so it aims to open the way for re-describing the concepts under scrutiny and, in turn, of rethinking what humanitarians are doing.
The discourse of war and the state
“Warfare is a cosmopolitan experience, a shared bane of humanity” (Barkawi, 2016, p. 199). It has existed throughout history, across cultures and in many different forms. Independent warlords around the world long ruled their fiefdoms by virtue of their capacity to wage war. Pirates, mercenaries and bandits are hardly a novel feature of contemporary wars, having historically fought empires and sustained themselves and their communities through different forms of violence. Precolonial Africa, with its highly complex concepts of territory and power, had its own typologies of war before the colonisers arrived with their gunboats. Yet in social and political inquiry today, war is a concept imagined primarily in provincial terms, in particular those of the West and its major wars. “Real war is interstate war between nation-states, fought between regular forces” (Barkawi, 2016, p. 199).
This position that the state claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of organised violence is the product of one of the most powerful discourses in Western society, the discourse of the state. Emanating out of Europe as part of the process of colonisation, this powerful state discourse effectively eclipsed all other ways of understanding the world and its social interactions.1 In this dominant understanding, international politics revolved around relations between states. In turn, war was a state activity, used in the pursuit of state interests, and states held a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Other forms of organised violence that have emerged, or re-emerged, are articulated in ways that sustain this established understanding of war. The civil wars that followed decolonisation were the first to be trimmed to fit this dominant state discourse, understood as political phenomena where non-state armed actors attempted to supplant the recognised state. Today, wars are seen as derivatives of these state or non-state categories, whether new or old civil wars, small wars, insurgencies, interventions or uprisings (see, e.g., Kaldor, 2006; Keen, 2012). Meanwhile, those forms of violence that cannot be manipulated into this discourse are distinguished as criminal, rather than political, phenomena (Kalyvas, 2001).
Humanitarian protection and the state
What does this state discourse and this highly particular understanding of war mean for modern humanitarianism and its response to contemporary wars? As Barkawi (2016) explains, this discourse has informed basic categories and vocabularies of social and political inquiry across a range of disciplines. This includes humanitarian protection. There has been a tendency for humanitarian scholars to focus on the ideological nature of war, which sees insurgents and rebel organisations as proto-states or states-in-the-making, a variation of the recognised entity that they aim to replace. They have a political agenda, enjoy a level of popular support and have an element of control over acts of violence. This has facilitated efforts to fit renegade conflicts into the established state approach to humanitarian protection. As discussed in Chapter 1, the protection frameworks that limit behaviour in war have been gradually extended to encompass internal conflicts and non-state armed actors, while humanitarian organisations have largely carried over existing protection practices to these so-called new wars.
Here I argue that the concepts of nation state, war and humanitarian protection work together as a Eurocentric package. This understanding reflects much of post-colonial theory, which examines the way in which European ideas inform vocabularies and categories used by social and political thought today (see, e.g., Cooper, 2005; Stoler, 1989; Young, 2001). Post-colonial theory suggests that colonialism was such a powerful force that it has spread European practices and discourses over the broad sweep of time. Indeed, “the values of colonialism have seeped much more widely into the general culture ... than ever had been assumed” (Young, 2001, p. 6). As part of this process, protection frameworks that dale back to 19'''-century' Europe remain central to modern approaches to humanitarianism broadly, and humanitarian protection in particular, as it is
A contested history of humanitarian protection 25 practiced around the world. As Rostis (2016) contends, humanitarianism “largely reflects a primacy of an established Western epistemology' and political-economic order” (p. 7). It is presented as a taken-for-granled practice with an unproblematic past. But this is not the case. Rather, the development of humanitarian protection as we know it has been selective, guided by a colonial discourse that excluded other forms of power and violence.