Humanitarian Rights and National Sovereignty: Revising the Geneva Conventions of 1929 and 1949

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Kimberly Lowe, Amherst College
In 1949 the governments involved in the revision of the Geneva Convention accepted both the extension of the convention’s protections to civilians and a minimum set of regulations for “armed conflict not of an international character.” This was a radical development that struck at the root of national sovereignty. Two decades earlier, despite the devastating experience of violence against civilians, the Armenian genocide, revolutions and civil wars, these same proposals had been rejected at the 1929 Geneva conference. What accounts for the rejection in 1929 of extensions accepted in 1949? This paper argues that the crucial difference in these two revisions lay not in the extent or character of violence in the First and Second World Wars, but in a fundamental re-working by humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of the relationship between ‘universal’ humanitarian principles and the nation-state. From 1918 to 1929 the ICRC, in keeping with a broad re-alignment of the international Red Cross movement, worked to separate humanitarian activities from national war aims, argued for the right to apply the Geneva Convention to civil wars and revolutions, and pushed for a broad definition of war victims that included civilians. In these ways the Red Cross sought during the 1920s to bind state sovereignty to the civilizing limits of humanitarian principles, while retaining a Victorian liberal view of the state as fundamentally a force for moral good. The events of the Second World War, and the post-war language of human rights, forced humanitarian actors to question this basic assumption, eventually leading them to a view of the modern state as an inherently violent force.