Humanitarianism, Genocide and Liberalism

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Journal of Genocide Research





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The international response to genocide and human rights violations has received increasing attention by scholars in the humanities and social sciences. This article explores the history of the response to mass atrocity by assessing recent work on humanitarianism as an idea and in practice in the West. It argues that the impulse to defend the rights of others historically has been tied up with geopolitical and imperial concerns that shaped European politics. The current embrace of the responsibility to protect, or ‘R2P’, and debates over whether or not to recognize and prosecute perpetrators of past atrocities from the Armenian genocide to Rwanda remain embedded in this longer history of humanitarianism and geopolitics. As recent work on humanitarian intervention, the anti-slavery movement and humanitarianism and foreign policy demonstrates, the pressing need to understand the response to atrocity has called scholars to more fully participate in the contemporary conversation over human rights by exploring its roots in humanitarian practices of the recent and not so recent past. Understanding the history of humanitarianism as it connects both with the history of human rights and liberal ideals offers an important way of reassessing the role of the nation-state and international institutions in responding to human rights crisis. The article concludes by suggesting that scholars move away from the question of the origin of human rights as an idea to focus on historicizing the response to humanitarian crisis in order to problematize the story of the rise of western-led human rights regimes.

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