Debating the History of Humanitarianism


Andrew Thompson
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
University of Exeter

Humanitarianism developed at the intersection of Decolonization, the Cold War, and new & accelerating forms of Globalization. Decolonisation was about much more than the ending of colonial relationships: what was at stake was the dismantling of an entire global order: an old world of imperial states was replaced by a new world of nation states and this ushered in new patterns of cultural, political and economic relations. In the existential struggle that was the Cold War, the control of overseas territory mattered intensely to each side’s sense of security and power.

Capitalist West and socialist East competed to convince nearly and newly independent African and Asian states to adopt their models of humanitarian and development aid. As a result it became more difficult to distinguish aid given to further state interests from that given according to recipient needs. Globalisation meanwhile expanded the range of voices to which humanitarians had to listen while radically differentiating them. Aid agencies intensified their use of the international media, yet were exposed to greater pressures from their donor states and publics.

Together these 3 geopolitical forces − Decolonization, the Cold War, & Globalization − raised far-reaching questions about the relationship of international organizations and NGOs to state power; the basis upon which humanitarian needs were identified and prioritized; and the interaction of humanitarians with non-state armed groups.

In the midst of this period, as humanitarian action re-orientated itself away from a war-torn Europe toward the Global South, the significance of the FPs was magnified: they were formally adopted at the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross in 1965 – a statement of the Movement’s ethics and values as well as its purpose and goals.

The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s adoption of its “Fundamental Principles.” To reflect on this milestone, in mid-September the ICRC hosted a public debate, co-sponsored by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Exeter. The panelists discussed the relevance, influence and challenges of the humanitarian principles in three different historical periods: (1) From the Birth of Humanitarianism to the World Wars (c. 1860-1945), (2) Decolonisation and the Cold War (1945-1989) and (3) The Era of “Liberal Interventionism” (1990’s-today).


  • Sir Michael Aaronson , Professorial Research Fellow, University of Surrey
  • Jane Cocking, Humanitarian Director, OXFAM UK
  • Irène Herrmann, Associate Professor of Swiss Transnational History, University of Geneva
  • Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC
  • Andrew Thompson, Professor of Modern History, University of Exeter


  • Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross, ICRC