Non-UN End to the War? Humanitarian Aid in the Age of the United Nations

Our final seminar session, ‘Non-UN end to the war? Humanitarian aid in the age of the United Nations’, chaired by Margot Tudor (University of Exeter), examined the role of medical and humanitarian organisations in the conflicts that tore Middle East and Asia apart in the aftermath of the Second World War.  With four fascinating papers about Pakistan, Palestine, and Korea, the speakers demonstrated the interest of decentring the gaze when looking at humanitarianism’s history. 

In his paper “Statelessness and public health in the refugee camps in the newly created State of Pakistan in 1947”, Muhammad Zaman (Boston University) offered to rethink the role of access to healthcare in statecraft processes. He first reminded us that the creation of the State of Pakistan in 1947 participated in one of the largest episodes of human migrations, in both directions, between India and the new state. This period was characterized by extensive violence; in addition, the migrants suffered from the lack of definition of who was a citizen for the first five years, as well as repeated epidemics and malnutrition. Dispensaries were only available to those who were allowed to move, while others were kept in camps without access to healthcare. Muhammad demonstrated that a complex community of providers emerged to address this situation: the government, medical staff of international organisations, and local volunteers. The state, Muhammed said, was the less active of these three groups and was torn between its rejection of British aid and its dependence toward international aid. One of the striking features of this period was violence against women – torture, rapes and 50 000 to 60 000 abductions – which was seen as a security issue and an international embarrassment, but not as a health issue or gender-based violence. However, this episode had a series of long-range impacts, including the emergence of a Pakistan Medical Association, the evolution of the national curriculum in medicine, the development of vaccination campaigns and the creation of a new policy for future refugees.

Muhammad Zaman, “Statelessness and public health in the refugee camps in the newly created State of Pakistan in 1947” (slide)

Marie Levant (Gerda Henkel Stiftung, Research Fellow) focused on “The Humanitarian Diplomacy of the Holy See and the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Pontifical Mission for Palestine”. Marie analysed the Vatican’s humanitarian diplomacy in the Middle East, demonstrating that it involved many channels from official ones, such as the apostolic delegate, to informal ones, such as local Churches and the network of Catholic Church members. It also relied on many offices, for example the Catholic Relief Service of the American Episcopate –within the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC). Through these multiple channels, the Vatican diplomacy intended to restore its image that had been tarnished by the Second World War and strengthen Christian presence in the region. In this context, numerous European and American organizations working for refugees converged in the newly created Mission for Palestine in 1948-1949, which was the expression of Vatican informal diplomacy. Marie argued that this diplomacy aimed at defending Jerusalem and the internationalization of Holy Places as well as protecting the Palestinian refugees: charity and politics were entangled. With two headquarters in New-York and Rome, the Mission was also represented on the ground trough three committees in Beirut, Jerusalem, and Amman. It took its part in field operations, working in good intelligence with other agencies and organisations – for example the UNRWA, UN agency for refugees – despite certain rivalries. The mission also strived to distance itself of American influence and promote the interest of the Catholic Church: Catholic Universalism was also a diplomatic tool.

Marie Levant, “The Humanitarian Diplomacy of the Holy See and the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Pontifical Mission for Palestine” (slide)

The two final presentations evoked the Korean War as a turning point in humanitarian practices. In 1945, as the 35-year Japanese colonization of Korea came to an end, the country was divided into the URSS occupied North and the US-occupied South. In 1948, two different Republics were proclaimed: the Republic of South Korea, endorsed by the UN, and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, endorsed by the USSR. On 25th June, 1950, the latter attacked the farmer. South Korea responded with the help of UN forces, while North Korea was quickly reinforced by the Chinese army. There followed three years of devastating conflict that mobilized humanitarian aid in various forms.

In his paper “Breaking Chains of Transmission: Tuberculosis Control and the Korean War”, Paul Cha (University of Hong-Kong) focused on the humanitarian action of the Church World Service (CWS) in South Korea in the years following the outbreak of the Korean War. The success of any tuberculosis’ control program, Paul argued, would depend on the ability of doctors and organizations to adjust their methods to the social and cultural context of 1950’s South Korea. From the beginning of the occupation, American authorities considered tuberculosis as a major public health issue. In June 1949, when the Korean War started, tuberculosis spread across the country with the beginning of the refugee crisis. The Korean State lacked financial means and the necessary infrastructures to deal with these outbreaks. At the time, the CWS was one of the many international organisations which sent people to South Korea. At the fall of 1953, Canadian missionaries sent by CWS reported that the course of treatment for tuberculosis usually prescribed in the West was inapplicable in South Korea: social and economic conditions made it impossible for patients to rest and isolate. In addition to systematic testing in clinics, treatment of the sicks by antibiotics to make them non-contagious and following-up of their families, it was necessary to educate patients and the public to the necessary precautions and to the continuation of treatments: breaking chains of transmission appeared as more efficient than trying to eradicate the disease.

Paul Cha, “Breaking Chains of Transmission: Tuberculosis Control and the Korean War” (slide)

Jan-Thore Lockertsen (Nord University, Bodø, Norway) concluded the session with a paper entitled “Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Korean War, Humanitarian Aid, and Creating Compassion’’, a subject he worked on with Christin Hallett (University of Huddersfield). From a Norwegian perspective, the initial attack of South Korea was immediately compared to the Nazi attack of Norway in 1940. However, Norway’s security policy was oriented towards Europe and participating in the UN operation in South Korea was out of the question – even if this operation had been decided under the presidency of the Norwegian Trygve Lie. To take its part in the UN effort in Korea without any military involvement, Norway followed the example of Sweden and Denmark: it did so through the national Red Cross by establishing a surgical field hospital that claimed to be independent of the military. It had however very close links with the army: as in previous conflicts, Red Cross doctors sent to the field were on leave from the army and had access its medical equipment. Nurses were civilians – women were not allowed to enlist in the Norwegian army – but they were still subjected to Marshall Law. Since the UN would not allow any civilian on the front lines, male nurses were ranked as NCO and female nurses as commissioned officers. The hospital became a field hospital run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the humanitarian aspect of its action was carefully emphasized to overshadow its military dimension – the hospital treating both soldiers and Korean civilians. The whole episode, Jan-Thore concluded, allowed women to take part to the war and be respected as professional. For Norway as a nation, the operation was a success judging by the high number of patients treated and the role played by nurses coming back from this hospital in training of their future colleagues.

Jan-Thore Lockertsen, “Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Korean War, Humanitarian Aid, and Creating Compassion’’ (slide)

These papers were followed by a fruitful discussion about humanitarianism and state power, the long-term impacts of humanitarian initiative and about gendered-based violence. In conclusion this session underlined the importance of de-centring the history of medical care and humanitarianism and rethinking the traditional chronology of the ‘long’ Second World War.

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