restricted access The Colonial Testing Ground: The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Violent End of Empire
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The Colonial Testing Ground:
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Violent End of Empire


In a memorandum issued in October 1962, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed its great concern that torture and other excessive acts of violence were becoming more prevalent worldwide despite the expanded application of international humanitarian law to internal conflicts by way of Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.1 Authorities in Geneva were particularly troubled by the trend that, due to a new “fight against terrorism,” torture was depicted as being in the best interest of society and in accord with the law. Under the guise of special laws on combating terrorism, methods of “interrogation under torture,” which had been universally outlawed by civilized society, were now being reinstated more or less secretly. In the opinion of the ICRC, the widespread strategy of fighting terrorism by its own means was not only an unequivocal violation of international law but also a “devastating abdication of humanity.”2

The main reason for this alarming evaluation of the situation lay in the numerous incidents that the ICRC had experienced during its missions in the wars of decolonization. Following the end of World War II, many violent uprisings shook European colonial empires. Because these conflicts between a European colonial power and an anticolonial rebellion movement were not considered international conflicts according to the definition of international law, the ICRC attempted, especially in the Mau Mau War in Kenya (1952–56) and the Algerian War (1954–62), to push through minimum humanitarian norms on the basis of the new provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

The “wars of national liberation” in the 1950s and 1960s posed new challenges to the International Committee in Geneva, because the humanitarian objective was repeatedly overlaid and endangered by realpolitik. On one side, the colonial powers feared unwelcome intervention in their colonial interests and therefore fought any expansion of international humanitarian law and the ICRC work in this area. On the other, liberation movements like the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) instrumentalized the revised international humanitarian law for purposes of propaganda in their struggle to win public opinion. The Geneva Conventions were increasingly bounced back and forth in the tough political confrontations of decolonization, so that the original issue of securing minimum humanitarian protections in wartime threatened to pale or even perish in the skirmishes. [End Page 107]

It is against this backdrop that this essay uses the case studies of Kenya and Algeria to examine the role of the International Red Cross in the process of violent decolonization. In the course of its attempt to develop an international humanitarian regime, two key questions arose for the ICRC. First, to what degree could the norms of the 1949 Geneva Conventions withstand the realities of colonial war? Second, how much influence could international organizations like the ICRC exert in these violent scenarios? Appealing to evidence mostly made available only recently by the archives of the International Red Cross in Geneva, I argue that the wars of decolonization became the first serious testing grounds for the revisions to international humanitarian law and had an impact on its future development.3

The New Geneva Conventions of 1949

World War II and the immediate postwar period represented a major turning point for the protection of international human rights. The massive violations of humanitarian norms during the war had shown the world community in an all too drastic way just how great the need was for codified universal basic rights. Thus, human rights were to be institutionalized as a legacy of the war within the postwar order. With the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the passage of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, the cornerstones were laid for the international human rights regime, a topic that began to assert its permanent place on the political agenda for the entire world.4

In conjunction with these precedent-setting documents, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are also a good example of this brief dawn in the history of international human rights protection.5 As...