This colloquium, supported by the George Macaulay Trvelyan Fund of
the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, will bring
together scholars to discuss papers on the history of humanitarian
At present, most considerations of the problem of how to protect human rights in the international community are substantially or wholly contemporary in focus; the lack of a broader historical context is a major flaw. This colloquium will investigate the hypothesis that at the dawn of modernity, when the law of nations was formulated, states often did use or threaten force against other states which ill-treated minority populations, and that at least some contemporary theorists specifically justified such actions in terms of the law of nations. It will further examine whether the history of the modern state system as it developed after Westphalia (1648) provides precedents, in rhetoric and reality, for ‘humanitarian interventions’. The main focus will be on charting the evolution of the concept through intellectual history and the history of international relations up to 1980, starting in the Early Modern Period, which is likely to emerge as a time of ‘incubation’, when notions of the common interest of ‘Christendom’ provided a starting point for doctrines that subsequently evolved and mutated via ‘humanity’ into the ideas of ‘international community’ current today.
Such an enterprise must, of course, beware the pitfalls of anachronism and teleology; and it may well be that papers will not so much generate a historical lineage for ‘humanitarian intervention’ as identify the diverse strands which later fused to make the modern concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’. However, this colloquium will greatly aid in the process of reconceptualizing interventions ‘in the cause of humanity’, by bringing together historians of different periods and regions, highlighting the different ways interventions have been regarded throughout history, and the different intentions and views of the international system that have explicitly or implicitly been attached to interventions.
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