Wednesday, March 13, 2019

van Dijk: “The Great Humanitarian”: The Soviet Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949

Boyd van Dijk (Univ. of Amsterdam - History) has published “The Great Humanitarian”: The Soviet Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Law and History Review, Vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 209-235, February 2019). Here's an excerpt:

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 are often seen by both scholars and practitioners as the product of liberal humanitarianism in general and particularly of the International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC) attempts to protect victims of war more strongly. They are primarily viewed as a major response to the experiences of World War II, in order to prevent the repetition of its most horrific atrocities, against especially civilians. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, or the human rights revolutions of the 1940s, the Conventions are not usually regarded as an “Anglo-American tale of triumph.” Traditionally, they are viewed as a similar sort of product made possible by a cohort of predominantly Western European drafters, thereby limiting the important Soviet role to a relatively minor although uncomfortable episode in a larger story of humanist triumphalism. This classic account mostly fails to address, let alone acknowledge, the significant contributions of illiberal states, such as the Soviet Union and the socialist states of the Eastern Bloc, in developing humanitarian law. This liberal humanitarian narrative was more or less unchallenged by the Soviets and the ICRC in the years after 1949. Both felt little need during this period of continuing tensions to remind others about their brief but important strategic cooperation in 1949 to strengthen the Geneva Conventions.

The history of the Conventions was, first and foremost, written by many of the former Western protagonists, particularly the ICRC, largely adopting and reifying their views. Since then, many influential scholars analyzing the historical evolution of the laws of war have, regardless of different turns in legal-historical historiographies, accepted these claims largely at face value. For example, the American political scientist David Forsythe, who wrote an authoritative and pioneering study of the ICRC's history, argued that “the Soviets never cooperated with the ICRC in meaningful ways on humanitarian protection during the Cold War proper.” Surprisingly, the recent opening up of Soviet archives has failed to yield a growing interest among Soviet experts in this specific matter. As a consequence of this, a liberal-historical amnesia has occurred, minimizing the remarkable role played by the Soviets before, and at Geneva, in revising humanitarian law.

Paradoxically echoing the Western orthodoxy on this matter, Francine Hirsch, an expert on Soviet international legal contributions after World War II, has also suggested that following Nuremberg, the Soviets “concluded that international legal institutions were of limited use to them, and refocused their efforts on shaping the postwar order through other means.” Others who have looked more in depth at the matter have stressed the importance of the Soviet Union's wartime declarations rather than its postwar legal contributions, or have looked at only certain dimensions of the Soviet contributions, instead of using a more multilayered historical approach as this article seeks to do.

This article, based on a collection of different Western and Soviet archival materials, certainly does not try to provide a comprehensive, let alone definitive, Soviet-focused account. Instead, it unpacks some of the existing misconceptions within the existing historiography regarding the Soviet impact on the ICRC's efforts to promote the law's revision, especially after World War II. Whereas most of the literature claims that Soviet contributions were either minimal or highly biased, this article reveals the Soviet delegation's mixed but critical legacy in developing the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, including Common Article 3, in particular.

In general, the Soviet position was evolving in nature, less unitary, and far more sophisticated than what is commonly assumed. On the one hand, its delegation(s), acting in surprisingly close cooperation with the ICRC, was critical in introducing powerful proposals and in creating sufficient support for plans to end “inhumane” measures in war. On the other hand, the Soviet delegation tried and eventually succeeded in making some of these protections potentially vulnerable because of its enduring opposition to accepting stronger enforcement mechanisms, such as allowing Protecting Powers to visit its camps.

Focusing on the Western perceptions of the Soviet Union's actions and its contributions to the law's historical evolution, the article also unravels how the Western objective of obtaining Soviet participation was seen by many of the major drafting parties, particularly the French Foreign Ministry, as a critical precondition for making the law's revision process a success. In pursuit of this goal, the parties seriously and extensively discussed the options of replacing or even eliminating the ICRC as a drafting party, with the aim of eventually obtaining Soviet participation. In so doing, the article raises the possibility of alternative paths, and that of contingency, of a variety of routes that need to be reinserted into a larger story about the law's historical development. This element is either missing or downplayed in most existing accounts, as they tend to take the ICRC's continued participation largely for granted.

The argument is presented across two different sections focusing on Soviet–ICRC relations and the Soviet impact on the discussions leading to the acceptance of the Geneva Conventions in August 1949. The first section explores the interwar and wartime origins of the hostile relations between Switzerland and Moscow, which led to the latter's rejection of participating in the early phases of the postwar drafting debates. The following section focuses on the attempts made by mainly French diplomats to obtain Soviet participation through questioning the ICRC's leading drafting role. Filling certain gaps in the existing literature on the Soviet contributions to developing international law after World War II, the final section of this article addresses a few key elements regarding the Soviet impact on the last stage of these negotiations.