Africa: the Red Cross, race, and the diffusion of the Geneva Conventions, c.1950s-60s

8 June 2015, 12:30 - 14:00

CRASSH Meeting Room, Alison Richard Building

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress seminar series.  All welcome, but please email Michelle Maciejewska if you wish to attend and to request readings.   Sandwich lunch and refreshments provided.

Dr Yolana Pringle

A handbook for Africa: the International Committee of the Red Cross, race, and the diffusion of the Geneva Conventions, c.1950s-60s

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which provides assistance to victims of armed conflict, was built on principles of charity, universality, independence, and impartiality. Founded in 1863, these principles were developed in European contexts, with little regard for questions of race or racial equality. As the ICRC expanded its remit to include Africa from the 1930s, its claims for universality were tested in the face of colonial racism and assumptions about the primitive nature of African behaviour. So different was the African outlook on life, it was argued, that the outcome of humanitarian intervention was highly uncertain. This paper examines the role of race in shaping the attitudes and activities of the ICRC in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. It does so by focusing on the ICRC’s engagement with delegates and other agencies in Central and Eastern Africa, particularly during periods of conflict in Kenya and Congo. Historians have already shown how the processes of violent decolonisation both challenged the ability of the ICRC to act and influenced the ongoing development of international humanitarian law. This paper goes beyond this by examining the assumptions of the ICRC itself, highlighting the ways in which ideas about race contributed to the increasing urgency with which they sought to educate Africans about the Geneva Conventions, and their desire that these educative activities be suitable for ‘primitive’ African minds.