An Imperial & Global Forum Interview
Professor Richard Toye (RT) interviews Centre Director Andrew Thompson (AT). Professor Thompson recently returned from an archival visit to the ICRC and would like to thank Jean-Luc Blondel and his colleagues for their assistance and guidance.
RT: Andrew, you’ve recently come back from Geneva, where you’ve been doing some archival research. What were you looking at and why?
AT: I was looking at two sets of files in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross that have not yet been publicly released. The first on the Nigeria-Biafran War – a watershed in the history of the ICRC as well as a conflict that has been aptly described as the “crucible of modern humanitarianism”. I hope to be the first scholar to reconstruct in detail what one of the largest post-war relief operations actually looked and felt like on the ground. Second, I was looking at their files related to Aden as part of a parallel interest in the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights and the ICRC’s work on behalf of political detainees. Aden brought to a head many issues regarding the status of such detainees that had been simmering for several years.
RT: Stephanie Decker has recently suggested that historians need to be more explicit about how and why they use archives in order to help explain their work to people in other disciplines. What are the advantages of this kind of evidence for understanding the problems of humanitarianism?
AT: The Red Cross was a key component of the international humanitarian system that emerged from the Second World War. It’s hard to write about any major post 1945 relief operation without taking into account the contribution from the different elements of the Red Cross / Red Crescent movement – namely the ICRC, the League of Red Cross Societies, and the National Societies themselves.
The ICRC archive also provides a window on the activities of other humanitarian actors – NGOs, UN agencies, religious missions etc. And it’s quite revealing on humanitarian interactions and negotiations with states. But there are limitations of course. Any institutional archive reflects the priorities, preconceptions and prejudices of the organisation that it was created for, and needs therefore to be read with and alongside other sources.Researchers tend to rely on the ICRC archive in Geneva. They’ve spent much less time in the archives of the National RC / RC societies.
Then there is the more general problem of humanitarianism’s Western origins and orientation. Until later in the century most of the major (i.e. best funded) organisations set up to distribute aid were North American or Western European. But they were not the only people to provide help to those in need. One gets tantalising glimpses of indigenous relief groups and charitable bodies from an archive like that of the ICRC but far from a complete picture of non-European cultures of aid – for that one has to turn to other types of material, especially when trying to read African and Asian responses to humanitarian medical interventions, like immunisation campaigns for example. An emerging body of literature on the history of Islamic relief is helping to offset the current imbalance in the historiography.
RT: I’m struck by your comment about how archives reflect the priorities of the organisations that create them. Ann Laura Stoler has written that we need to pay attention not only to ‘archival content, but to the principles and practices of governance lodged in particular archival forms.’ Whether or not organisations make it easy to access historical material, and whether that material is kept in good order, is also rather telling about the nature of those organisations today. My own visits to various UN archives tell me that different parts of the same organisation can have radically varying degrees of efficiency … Was your experience in Geneva a smooth one?
AT: The ICRC archive is incredibly well catalogued and maintained. It’s not really just an archive for studying just the Red Cross or the humanitarian sector more broadly. It’s an archive for studying conflict, in its many and varied forms. New material for the period 1966 to 1975 will shortly be released. Something of the importance the ICRC attaches to the archives can be gained from a recent interview with the ICRC’s new President, Peter Maurer.
The mid-twentieth century is a difficult part of the ICRC’s past, with its failure to speak out more effectively over the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, followed by the tremendous problems the organisation experienced adapting to new types of warfare during decolonisation, and then the succession of protracted post-colonial crises which followed – in particular the Congo and Biafra, perhaps the most widely publicised African conflicts of the last century.
The myth of Doctors Without Borders / MSF grew out of Biafra – appalled by what he had witnessed, a young French doctor with the Red Cross, Bernard Kouchner, returned home to reject the Red Cross principles of neutrality and non-interference and to light a fire under a certain brand of more activist humanitarianism that saw the right of states to intervene in crises as part and parcel of humanitarianism’s creed.
In fact, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. MSF did not emerge straight after or out of Biafra. But there is no doubt that this was a low point for the ICRC from which it took time to recover. In general, the post-war period seems to have been pushed to the margins of the consciousness of the humanitarian sector, usually in favour of a focus on the 1990s as another low point with the fall-out from a decade of so-called ‘liberal interventionism’.
In a way, the terrible experiences of the 1990s give the lie to Kouchner’s diagnosis of Biafra. Had the ICRC lent more towards Biafra the relief operation mounted there would likely have been closed down much earlier than it almost and eventually was by the Nigerian Federal Military Government. Biafra lives on in the memory of the ICRC and goes to show that, as the American novelist William Faulkner once said, the past is never dead – indeed, it is not even past.
RT: You were working on the Palais Des Nations, the old League of Nations building? I actually think it’s really helpful, if at all possible, to go to these historical locations and get a sense of the physical environment that shaped the decision making process.
AT: You are absolutely right about that. Geneva is a small place. The ICRC is just opposite the UN buildings – it actually looks down on to them – and both are cheek by jowl with various national diplomatic missions. UNHCR is just down the hill. And several other humanitarian agencies are close by. You only need to frequent certain Geneva bars to see how people from different organisations still mix and socialise with each other. Each of these organisations have their own identities and working modalities of course. Equally it’s important therefore not to overlook the interactions and exchanges between them.
RT: Many thanks, Andrew, for sharing your experiences. Do keep us posted as your research progresses.
 Stephanie Decker, ‘Solid intentions: An archival Ethnography of Corporate Architecture and Organizational Remembering’, Organization 2014, Vol. 21(4) 514–542.
 Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, 2009): 20.