The parallel histories of humanitarian interventions and minority rights

The MoH team at the International Conference ‘Versailles and Rights’ in Helsinki

Last June, Davide and Emmanuel were invited to give a talk at the International Conference ‘Versailles and Rights: A Centenary Appraisal’, organised by the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland. The event, involving about twenty international scholars, examined different aspects of the Versailles Peace Conference as a major turning point in the history of rights and the transition from empires to nation-states.

On this occasion, we decided to present some findings from the Myth of Homogeneity research project—notably about the antecedents, organisation and eventual failure of the minority protection system of the League of Nations—along with insights from Davide’s long-standing research on the history of humanitarian interventions. Indeed, while brainstorming a possible topic for this conference, we quickly found out that minority rights and humanitarian interventions have a strangely intertwined and, at the same time, parallel history.

The French intervention in Lebanon in 1860 painted by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé

Humanitarian interventions arose and developed during the 19th century as a ‘last resort’ used by the Western powers belonging to the so-called Concert of Europe to impose on the Ottoman Empire respect for religious rights of Christian minorities. As a practice, they evolved with little codification and rather as a series of ad hoc measures adopted by specific states in a context of blatant power asymmetries between these and the slowly crumbling Sublime Porte. Such interventions were no early instance of human rights protection, but they were rather aimed at serving the interests of the Major Powers and at ensuring the preservation of peace and security in the European continent. They were also tainted by clear civilisational hierarchies, whereby on the ‘backward’ Ottoman Empire rules had to be imposed by external forces in order to become a civilised member of international society.

The Bulgarian horrors of 1875 led to the first direct encounter between humanitarian intervention and minority rights in their modern form of protection of national minorities. On the occasion of those massacres Western European powers stood by. The Russian Empire then waged a war (whose rhetoric was that of a humanitarian intervention) against the Ottoman Empire. The victory of the Russians and the Treaty of San Stefano, whose conditions were not acceptable to the other members of the Concert of Europe, internationalised the question and eventually brought all protagonists to the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Minority rights became a crucial part of the peace hammered out there.

The territorial acquisitions of the countries arising from the Russian-Turkish War after the Treaty of Santo Stefano (on the left) and the Congress of Berlin (on the right).

At Berlin, minority rights were not an absolute novelty, but the Congress did represent the first multilateral treaty in which foreign powers not involved in the conflict imposed extensive clauses on new states, not only in exchange for recognition, but also for specific grants of territory. One important element of continuity with the previous practice of humanitarian intervention was the adoption of a paternalist approach whereby the new states had to accept treaty clauses protecting minorities because they were considered backward; hence, they had to conform to supposedly Western European standards in order to join the Family of Nations.

However, the Treaty of Berlin did not include any enforcement mechanism. In addition, as the century drew to a close, the Great Powers grew increasingly reluctant to militarily intervene into the affairs of other states. In the first decade of the 20th century, the fate of minorities worsened considerably and this deterioration culminated in the open violence and ethnic cleansing committed by all participants in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Paradoxically, as an important precedent to the creation of a multilateral system of minority rights was established at Berlin (and would be used as a source of inspiration at Versailles), European powers became ever more wary to enforce such rights through diplomatic and military action. On the eve of the First World War, the prospects for minority rights looked grim to say the least. The reasons why humanitarian interventions declined after the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 are systemic. Each potential case for intervention endangered the stability of the international system and peace in Europe. The clearest examples of this situation were the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in the 1890s and early 1900s. In these instances, all the ingredients favourably preparing the ground for intervention were reunited. Still, no military effort took place. At the same time, international legal scholars began putting forward the first theories of humanitarian intervention based upon actions carried out throughout the recently ended century.

The asymmetry characterising the minority protection system (the countries in red signed minorities treaties or declarations, the others did not).

The Conference of Versailles represented a ‘triumph’ for minority rights. The recognition of self-determination as one of the main principles of political legitimacy in international relations coupled with the acknowledgment that not all peoples (or not in their entirety) could be granted a state of their own turned minority rights into a convenient solution to reconciling Wilsonian ideas and the geographical complexity of the Eastern European map. The minority treaties and the international guarantee provided by the League of Nations led to the establishment of a minority protection system involving 15 countries, 50 minorities and 30 million people. Yet, this system had two fundamental flaws that bear an important relation with humanitarian intervention: it was asymmetrical and it lacked strong enforcement mechanisms.

On the one hand, the Great Powers imposed minority protection on the new states of Eastern Europe, but sternly rejected its extension not only to themselves, but also to other Western European countries, despite the presence of sizeable minorities within their borders. Such a contradiction fundamentally undermined the system. It also portrayed the lingering on of those civilisation hierarchies that had informed the practice of humanitarian interventions in the 19th century as well as the Congress of Berlin. Only, this time, such hierarchies had somehow ‘moved West’ since territories formerly belonging to the Habsburg Empire (and therefore considered as being part of the family of civilised nations) were now deemed backward and requiring international supervision. On the other hand, the lack of willingness on the part of the Great Powers to intervene in order to guarantee the respect of the treaties made that the minority states could do away with the non-fulfilment of the minority clauses.

Graham’s book was one of the major interwar contributions to the advancement of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

The paradox whereby the decline of humanitarian intervention as an international practice went along with its formulation as a doctrine continued during the interwar years. In 1924, the American scholar Malbone W. Graham hoped that the League of Nations would become the central authority in charge of international security and would provide an effective safeguard for the emerging concept of human rights. Similarly, André Mandelstam argued that the founding of the League of Nations and the associated move toward universality meant that all states were now obligated to protect human rights around the world without exception. Graham and Mandelstam referred explicitly to the 19th century model of humanitarian intervention, but now separated it from the ‘sentimental law of humanity’ as well as the division of ‘uncivilised’ and ‘civilised’ nations. Instead, for the first time, they linked the practice directly to an international organisation such as the League of Nations and what they believed was the emerging notion of universal human rights. However, neither Graham’s nor Mandelstam’s idealistic hopes that the League might serve as the new international authority for humanitarian intervention were fulfilled. The Geneva-based organisation did not possess the kind of robust mechanisms needed to implement a ‘world contract’ on human rights. These voices were representatives of a shrinking, disappearing world of progressive cosmopolitan professors in stark contrast with the reality of the 1920s and 1930s.

However, the conference did not end on this negative note. Although the shadow of the 1930s weighs heavily on the interwar years, casting them as a dreadful age of rising authoritarianism and collapsing international cooperation, it was also a time of hope and experimentation, as many of the contributions to this gathering showed. If, borrowing the title of Zara Steiner’s book, it was a period in which ‘the lights failed’, it means that there were lights in the first place – although they were certainly not as bright as the sun in the sky over Helsinki during the first days of June 2019.

A picture of a wonderful bay in the Suomelinna Islands a few kilometres off Helsinki’s coast.

Our warmest thanks go to the conference conveners for their masterful organisation of the event and of our stay.

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