Humanitarian Spaces: Three Concepts for a History (Part 3)

This is part three in a series. See here for parts one and two.

Oath and language: In my third and final example, I come to probably the most important element in structuring humanitarian spaces: language. It is in language that the connection between the spheres of humanitarianism, power, and politics becomes clearest. Here, I will not look at the meanings of the words or programmes of humanitarians; I am interested in the function of humanitarian language within the political sphere. In his work on the “archaeology of the oath,” which he describes as a “sacrament of language,” Giorgio Agamben—well known in research on humanitarianism for his concept of the “bare life”—reveals some striking parallels between those who swear an oath and those who speak in the name of humanitarian ideals. Agamben claims that the oath has a central function in the sphere of politics: it touches the center of the human being as an animal politique that is capable to use language. According to Agamben, once human beings discover their ability to speak, they bind themselves to language and put their life at risk by using language.

Many texts from the early interwar years show how the ICRC and other humanitarians used language much in the sense of Agamben’s oath. In 1923, for example, in a text entitled “Morale internationale et Croix-Rouge,” ICRC member Edouard Boisser sketched out a vision of the new world where peace was ensured by the League of Nations.[1] He then went on to highlight the core principles of the ICRC and its raison d’être:

Si la Croix-Rouge s’était bornée à l’affirmation d’un principe: inter arma caritas, si elle n’en avait pas poursuivi et réalisé les applications immédiates, elle serait restée sans influence réelle ; car toute idée morale n’a de valeur que pour autant que du domaine intellectuel elle passe dans la vie de l’individu et de la collectivité. C’est pourquoi il faut applaudir sans réserve au développement que les activités des Croix-Rouges ont pris et prennent tous les jours, s’étendant des blessés aux prisonniers, des victimes de la guerre à celles des catastrophes de tout genre, suppléant non plus seulement pendant la guerre, mais aussi pendant la paix, à l’insuffisance des institutions officielles, et prenant toutes les initiatives utiles pour secourir l’humanité souffrante. Nous pouvons donc affirmer que, suivant une parole biblique, la Croix-Rouge montre « sa foi par ses œuvres ».[2]

In Michael Barnett’s words, “humanitarian ethics are simultaneously universal and circumstantial.”[3] However, by interpreting lines of humanitarian promises like the one cited above not only as the connection between universal ethics and circumstancial deeds, but rather as a devotion to humanitarian ideals, humanitarian language becomes political in its function.

The promise to prove belief in humanitarian ideals by manifesting deeds can be found as a meta-narrative of humanitarianism in many texts and times and in circumstances when politicians fail to keep promises. Thus, humanitarian language is located in the core of the political sphere and it can even serve as a rediscovery of the political sphere and projection screen of political guidance in times of troubles. As Agamben puts it: “The proper context of the oath is therefore among those institutions, like the fides, whose function is to performatively affirm the truth and trustworthiness of speech … Even before being a sacrament of power, the oath is a consecration of the living human being through the word to the word. The oath can function as a sacrament of power insofar as it is first of all the sacrament of language.[4]

Copyright ICRC

Copyright ICRC

It has often been said that humanitarianism shows an integrative function in times of crises and we often find in political rhetoric a lot of humanitarian selfdescription by people who do not act as humanitarians. An explanation for this is exactly the political aspect of humanitarian language. This aspect has been broadly neglected because of the claim that humanitarian ideals such as neutrality and impartiality would guarantee that any action corresponds with these ideals.

In summary, the three concepts sketched out in these three posts may help those studying the history of humanitarian governance or the development of empires of humanity to uncover some of the underlying dynamics that structure words, actions, and meanings. These dynamics are key to understanding how humanitarianism is empowered in specific spaces, and how at the same time it creates new spaces.

[1] Edmond Boissier, “Morale internationale et Croix-Rouge,” Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge 53, no 5 (1923): 449–52.

[2] Ibid., 449–50.

[3] Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (New York: 2011), 11.

[4] Giorgio Agamben, The Sacrament of Language: An Archeology of the Oath (Stanford: 2011), 65-66.





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About Thomas Brückner

Thomas Brückner studied at Free University Berlin, London School of Economics, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales History, Political Science and Sociology. He completed his doctoral dissertation on the relation between the ICRC and Switzerland in 2015 at University of Zurich. His book Hilfe schenken. Die Beziehung zwischen dem IKRK und der Schweiz 1919-1939 is about to appear (NZZ Libro). In 2013, he co-edited Die Basler und das Rote Kreuz - 125 SRK Basel. He works as head of communication for Swiss Civilian Service.

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