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The South, the West, and the meanings of humanitarian intervention in history

In the nineteenth century, historians wrote grand narratives about the emergence of constitutionalist government. Patrick Quinton-Brown wonders whether scholars have done the same for humanitarian intervention in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. 


As it has been written, the history of humanitarian intervention is all too Whiggish and all too white. By conceptualising humanitarian intervention in the way that they do, orthodox histories should be seen as entangled in debates about the origins of human rights but also, perhaps more crucially, debates about the various formations and reinventions of human rights. Alternative codifications of rights reveal the historical possibility of a Southern practice of what we would almost certainly call ‘humanitarian intervention’. The record of a radical Third World practice to save strangers from the atrocities of colonialism and extreme racism is also a record of Western states playing staunchly sovereigntist roles, of the West's late devotion to Westphalia. To sketch out such a counterhistory is to argue the following: at a threshold moment in the international-political life of the Responsibility to Protect, it is the terms, range, and domain of the intervention debate that must be re-formulated and re-evaluated.


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    : José Lucio Martínez Pedro, "Day of Solidarity with the People of Angola, 1972". Copyright: OSPAAAL, The Mike Stanfield Collection. Image courtesy of the House of Illustration in London
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