Why Historians Can Be Valuable Members of the Humanitarian Family

ICRC in Geneva

Cédric Cotter
Law and Policy researcher, ICRC

Cross-posted from Humanitarianism & Human Rights

When I was a young student in history and philosophy at the University of Geneva, I had never thought that one day I may work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Yet it happened. While I was preparing my Masters thesis, the protection division at the ICRC was looking for a young historian to carry out a research in their archives. I got hired for a one-year traineeship contract, which was extended by two shorter terms within the relations with the arms carriers unit and at the archives division. This experience was a turning point in my career. As a consequence, I decided to write my PhD dissertation on the history of the ICRC, which was part of a research project dedicated to Switzerland during the First World War. I analyzed the interactions between humanitarian action and neutrality at that time.

In July 2015, during my research, I got the chance to participate in the very first Global Humanitarian Research Academy. This academy played a very positive role for me, as it was an occasion to meet other researchers working on the history of humanitarian action. Our various talks and debates made me think about other practices and ways of studying the past of humanitarian organizations. We shared different perspectives, some close and some more distant from mine, however all of them very interesting and challenging. It also gave me the opportunity to posit my hypotheses and research results to more advanced scholars. They gave good advice that I then used during the writing process of my dissertation. Meeting others PhD students was useful in terms of networking, of course. Beyond that, the excellent atmosphere created during the academy allowed us to maintain amicable contacts, as well. Still today, I regularly exchange with my fellows. At the end, this experience was really rewarding.

Now I am Law and Policy researcher for the Law and Policy Forum (obviously…) at the ICRC. One might wonder why a researcher with a background in history carries out research on issues related to International humanitarian law (IHL). My training as a historian helps me a lot in my work for several reasons.

I first use concrete skills developed during my dissertation and at the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy. On a daily basis, I need to find references on specific topics and read plenty of publications. Mountains of data are stored at the ICRC archives and my role is to exploit them by finding facts, evidences, eloquent examples, by synthetizing them and by enhancing our more than 150 years of experience, successes and failures. Being a PhD student is not only an intellectual adventure; it is also a full professional experience. While researching and writing my dissertation, I gained many soft skills too: project management, responsibility, flexibility, creativity, persistence, communication, teamwork ability, etc. Historians sometimes tend to forget that we have these skills sought in the private sector.

Unlike many of my colleagues in the field or at the headquarters, my work is not dictated by emergencies. If I deal with current humanitarian issues, I try to analyze them on the long-term, for a period of 5, 10 or even 20 years. While humanitarians are often convinced that they are facing unprecedented crisis with totally new challenges, looking back into history shows that it is often not the case. Putting into perspective the past and the present is useful. History relativizes this feeling of perpetual novelty and contributes to capitalizing on the past experience and to focusing on the challenges that are really new.

Being a historian by training also shapes my approach to the research questions. I am currently working on the interactions between IHL and displacement. My goal is not to focus on specific articles of the Geneva Conventions or other treaties, but to understand why, in an armed conflict, people are leaving their home and to evaluate to which extent these reasons result from IHL violations. To this end, I always try to keep in mind that many other political and socio-cultural aspects influence the patterns of displacement. The natural curiosity of the historian helps me to integrate my research subject within a broader context (the history of a phenomenon, the history of a country, of an armed conflict, etc.). By using a holistic approach, I can also include perspectives of various research fields like law and history of course, but also sociology, international relations, demography or political sciences.

Moreover, most of my colleagues are lawyers; but others studied anthropology, political science, international relations, sociology, medicine or even engineering. By confronting our respective methodologies and ways of thinking, we mutually enrich our reflection. Being part of a multi-disciplinary team is one of the most rewarding parts of my job and I hope that my background brings a different, non-legal, perspective on law. I also hope that, as a researcher with a background in history, I can usefully remind the complexity of the world and nuance some common assumptions.

To conclude, I would like to share a few personal thoughts.

Historians have a role to play in humanitarian organizations. As researchers, of course, but also in “non-historical” positions. The skills of a historian are both intellectual and practical. Well-trained historians sent to the field as delegate will not only read about the country and its cultural environment, they will also try to understand the causes of the phenomena they witness. In other words, they will hopefully have a specific added value by providing a new perspective and analysis on their work.

History, as a discipline, is important for humanitarian organizations, too. It contributes to a better understanding of the contexts in which humanitarians work. In our current environment, where most of the conflicts are protracted, looking back into the past is necessary in order to identify their roots and their dynamics. Maintaining a coherent action for years or even decades is really difficult, particularly because delegates regularly move from one mission to another. An historical approach strengthens the institutional memory held by local colleagues. More generally, the long-term evolution of warfare and humanitarian action cannot be understood without history.

It would be presumptuous to assert that my research and academic historians will revolutionize the ICRC or other organizations. We will not. But I am convinced that we can modestly contribute to making them better. Looking back into history is one of the best, if not the best, way to capitalize on the rich experiences of the past. Lessons from the past may nourish the current actions by providing not only the examples of successes, but also the failures. My own research will hopefully add to our “toolbox” good arguments of the past that could sustain our efforts to generate respect for the law. The main challenge is not methodological; the real challenge is to convince humanitarian organizations to engage in this kind of research and to have a fearless look into their past.

Cédric Cotter was Fellow of the GHRA 2015. His entry for the Online Atlas was on Afghanistan, 2010: Humanitarian Principles of Neutrality and Impartiality Contested. He recently published his Dissertation on Switzerland during the First World War.

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