On a balmy Sunday evening in March 1838, a colorful conclave of English, Parsee, American, and Hong merchants crowded the resplendent grand hall of the New English factory in Canton in a sort of town meeting to hear Chief Superintendent and Plenipotentiary of Britain’s China trade, Charles Eliot. Eliot was there to announce Britain’s response to the arrival of Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, who had arrived days earlier with a commission to eliminate the opium trade, his sweeping proclamation demanding they deliver “every particle of opium” to him for destruction. It was addressed to “the Barbarians of every nation.” Recognizing the sprinkling of Americans in the hall, Eliot expressed his delight for their tacit cooperation, and assured them, too, of the protection of the British government. Proclaiming what everyone already knew, that two American warships, the imposing USS John Adams and the Columbia, were expected imminently, he hoped that he could count on their assistance. “Yes, you may,” someone shouted back. All in all, it was “a very pretty speech,” American merchant Robert Bennet Forbes observed.
More than a pretty speech, Eliot’s words recognized an important aspect of imperial and global history – Eliot understood that the sinews that connected the British Empire were more than ships plying trade routes, colonial administrators issuing edicts from imposing fortresses, or agents collecting taxes from impoverished farmers. They were also strengthened by informal ties of commerce, gentility and affinity that bound, albeit loosely, communities of global expatriates. In subtle but significant ways, the empire of the 1830s was already an informal phenomenon, connected by the citizens of the world whose residencies in colonial outposts created webs of support.
Even as Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the movement’s Fundamental Principles, there is a palpable sense that they are at risk. Threatened not only by the resurgence of state sovereignty and proliferation of non-state armed groups, the very universality of the principles may be in question. As the twenty-first century draws on, are the principles of ‘impartiality’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ still fit for purpose as Western influence wanes and the nature of conflict itself rapidly evolves?
The Red Cross’ principles have marinated in a century and a half of humanitarian history. That history matters. The past helps us to understand how different types of threat to humanitarian principles have emerged from different types of conflict and geopolitical environments. History also sheds light on how, despite such obstacles, the principles came to acquire the public prominence and moral authority they currently possess.
As polling day looms it seems certain that Britain is heading for another hung parliament, raising the prospect of a minority government or another coalition.
The resulting administration may well be more unstable than the current Conservative-Lib Dem government; things will certainly be messy to some degree. For those accustomed to the idea of living under a two-party system, in which Labour alternates with the Tories as the political pendulum swings, this is all very disconcerting.
But the story of another coalition, one formed a hundred years ago this month, casts things in a different light. It was the chaos of May 1915 that laid the groundwork for much of our modern political order; and our expectations about how party politics operates are to a considerable degree the legacy of the era of Asquith and Lloyd George.
Over the past several weeks, a new wave of xenophobic violence has swept across South Africa, beginning in Durban and quickly spreading to Johannesburg and its surrounding townships. The targets are makwerekweres, a derogatory term used for foreigners, in reference to the “babble” they speak. They are Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalis, Bangladeshis and other foreign nationals. Initial violence in Durban was sparked by the remarks of Goodwill Zwelithini, the king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, who reportedly called on foreigners to “pack their bags and go back to their countries.”
In the following weeks, the violence claimed the lives of seven people and turned thousands more into refugees. Media images depicted scenes of terror, displacement and hatred: foreign-owned shops looted and ransacked; tent cities hastily assembled for refugees; foreigners boarding buses back to their home countries; and even the brutal stabbing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole in Johannesburg’s neighbouring township of Alexandria. Yet these images are not new for South Africans. Just earlier this year, another episode of xenophobic-induced looting and violence occurred Soweto. Recent violence particularly calls to mind scenes from just seven years ago, in May 2008, when 62 foreigners were killed and thousands displaced in the worst xenophobic attacks in the country’s post-apartheid history.
These episodes of violence are not sporadic. They represent long-simmering anti-migrant sentiments that have been increasing in the country since the early 1990s. As apartheid collapsed and South Africa opened its borders to foreign migration, many within the country found new scapegoats for their dissatisfaction with democracy’s failed promises. They blamed foreigners, rather than whites or the government, for high unemployment and scarce resources.
The 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Relations Conference has brought renewed global attention to the themes that animated the first major gathering of Asian and African heads of state in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. At a recent commemorative gathering (19-24 April 2015), delegates from 109 Asian and African countries convened once again in Bandung and ruminated upon an ambitious agenda: “Strengthening South-South cooperation to Promote World Peace and Prosperity.” Delegates in 2015 renewed a commitment to the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (launched in 2005 during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the first Bandung Conference), and they also worked to further initiatives in economic cooperation, most notably through the Asian-African Business Summit. The “spirit of Bandung” may have endured, but the historical context of such cooperative ventures has shifted dramatically over the decades. Continue reading “The “Spirit of Bandung” at Sixty”→