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Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Decolonization in Solidarity: Rethinking Categories for Post-1945 History

by guest contributor Ariel Mond

By Ariel Mond

In April 1959, in the midst of the Algerian War, the French humanitarian organization Secours populaire français (SPF) compiled a rather atypical document for its annual meeting. Under the banner of its motto, “tout ce qui est humain est nôtre” (“all that is human is ours”), the communist- and anticolonialist-aligned organization presented a few short pages on one strain of its wartime activity: aiding Algerians imprisoned or interned in the French metropole, many of whom had been arrested for their actions in support of the Algerian nationalist cause. In this document, the SPF printed letters it had received at the beginning of 1959 from three imprisoned Algerian women who wrote to thank the organization for sending Christmas packages, well wishes for the new year, and “gifts of friendship.” In each of their letters, Mériem B., Safia B., and Mesli F. — partially anonymized in this document— evoked the profound emotional difficulty of their imprisonment. Moreover, each letter writer expressed her commitment to Algerian self-determination and solidarity with the French humanitarians in the same breath: “this friendship,” Mériem B. wrote, is “the true image of the face of France,” a France that “has no fear of openly proclaiming its solidarity with oppressed peoples.”

“Quand en prison, pénètrent de tels souffles,” published by Secours populaire français [French Popular Relief], (Paris: 1959). Scan courtesy of Gallica.

While readers of this SPF document would have been left to speculate over the specifics of these women’s lives, imprisonment, and political affiliations, another contemporary organization rendered them more explicitly. In a published pamphlet entitled “Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” a Tunis-based organization called the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc (“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”) identified these same three Algerians — Fadila Mesli, Safia Bazi, and Mériem Belmihoub — as women in their early twenties who had volunteered as nurses for the National Liberation Front (FLN). Arrested and transferred to penitentiaries in metropolitan France for providing medical care to Algerian soldiers, these women proudly testified that they had “accomplished their duties as Algerian women and nurses,” and that their only crime was “to have wanted to live free” (11-12). Filled with images and first-hand testimonies from detained Algerian women, this pamphlet reprinted selected articles of the Fourth Geneva Conventions that outlined specific protections for women prisoners against “rape, prostitution, and all attacks on modesty” (Article 27, Paragraph 2) alongside testimonial evidence — notably from the infamously imprisoned and tortured Djamila Bouhired — that such provisions were not being applied in France’s treatment of incarcerated Algerian women. Significantly, this pamphlet positioned French imprisonment of Algerian women — Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub included — as a violation of international law and human rights.

“Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc [“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”] (Tunis: undated).

            Interestingly, these two sources — one produced by a French humanitarian organization, the other by a North African women’s student group expressly concerned with international human rights law —  evoked the same three imprisoned Algerian women. Together, they offer an avenue for considering the connected relationships between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights. Further, these documents and their shared interest in Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub show how decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights were not only connected at the highest level of global politics and international institutions, but also formed the basis of meaningful solidarities between different historical actors whose paths crossed on the ground, so to speak, of decolonial activism.

Yet, this entanglement between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights has long been obscured in the historiography. To be sure, decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights are distinct even as they overlap. While, for example, humanitarianism has a long history associated with religion and charity, gendered care-taking, and liberal imperialism, among other things, “human rights” have more often emerged as a marker of the international order of the post-1945 world. However, British historian Andrew Thompson has recently argued that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights deserve to be examined together. A reframing of these three topics as interrelated in the aftermath of World War II, he suggests, allows us to pose the following questions: what effects did discourses and practices of human rights and humanitarianism have on movements for decolonization? And how, in turn, did decolonization impact the future of international human rights and humanitarian organizations in the latter decades of the twentieth century?

Other scholars have begun to address these questions, albeit with varying answers. Samuel Moyn has argued, for example, that while decolonization gave a platform to anticolonial nationalists around the globe to argue for national self-determination as the basis of welfare, these Third World actors’ calls for global equality did not constitute a “human rights movement.” Human rights as we know them, he argues, would only emerge out of the global neoliberalism of the 1970s. Jennifer Johnson, however, disagrees with that assessment. In her study of the FLN’s healthcare services during the Algerian War, Johnson shows how FLN leaders claimed national sovereignty not only by fighting the French for it, but also by providing healthcare and welfare services to Algerians. Significantly, FLN leaders offered these healthcare and welfare services as evidence to international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, that national self-determination was better prepared than French colonialism to guarantee humanitarian aid and human rights to the Algerian people. With help from other countries in the Third World, the Soviet bloc, and the West, the FLN successfully garnered support within these international human rights and humanitarian communities, crucially helping turn the tide of war against France. In the process, Johnson shows, “the war in Algeria demanded that the international community rethink the meaning of humanitarianism and human rights” (10) to include serving those fighting for national sovereignty on the grounds of welfare and healthcare. As such, she argues, “Algerian decolonization should be considered part of human rights history” (11). Human rights history, in other words, can and should incorporate the rights claims and humanitarian actions made by historical actors working toward decolonization and national sovereignty—even if a more recognizable “human rights movement” did not coalesce until the 1970s. In this reading, then, we can see Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as not only prisoners receiving humanitarian aid or FLN nurses. They were also welfare and human rights workers, at once claiming and contributing to the decolonization of Algeria by offering up the nation as a framework for guaranteeing healthcare, humanitarian aid, and human rights. 

Understanding decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights as interrelated, moreover, offers an expanded view of how we might shift our perspective on decolonization from a national to a global scale. As historians Andrew Thompson and Martin Thomas argue in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire, decolonization encompasses not only the establishment of new nations at the ends of empire. It is also a series of ongoing global processes that historically linked claims of self-determination, national sovereignty, and human rights. In this view, decolonization saw actors from the Third World work on national and global levels to enter into, appropriate, and fundamentally change organizations of international human rights governance that had been established under the purview of Western empires. This is, for example, part of the arguments that Johnson makes for the FLN and that Roland Burke posits for Third World actors in the United Nations. Each author shows how decolonizing leaders acted within and across national lines in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in ways that fundamentally transformed the international stage of human rights by the 1970s. Decolonization, then, not only brought the logics of post-WWII human rights and humanitarianism to the level of national self-determination; it also globalized the concept of self-determination as a guarantor of welfare and human rights.

The historically documented cases of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub, however, pose an additional question: how and why did politics of humanitarianism and human rights map onto decolonial networks of solidarity, both within and beyond the Third World? Scholars of so-called “Third Worldism” among the European left have, in part, considered this question, particularly in the context of the student, worker, and migrant protests of 1968 and new forms of humanitarian engagement that followed. Quinn Slobodian and Christoph Kalter, in their respective studies on radical leftist movements in West Germany and France, examine how both European imaginaries of and collaboration with Third World actors during and just after decolonization fundamentally shaped the politics of these countries’ “New Left” movements in the 1960s. Eleanor Davey further contends that, for the French case, these “Third Worldist” radical left actors went on to found a “new humanitarianism” in the 1970s and 1980s that lives on in Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), founded in 1971 and still influential in today’s humanitarian and international development scene. Concerned with documenting the importance of the Third World and Third Worldism to postwar European history, these works offer radical leftist politics and humanitarianism — both of which coalesced around human rights claims — as arenas for solidarity between European and Third World actors during and beyond decolonization.

“Appel aux femmes de tous les pays” (back page of “Respect des conventions internationales”). This “Call to Women of all Countries” asks for international support for Algerian women nationalist fighters, particularly for issues surrounding the French use of the death penalty, the application of the Geneva Conventions, and support from the International Red Cross.

Significantly, the two Algerian War-era documents mentioned in the beginning of this essay position Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub at the intersection of multiple solidarities. The SPF document, through these Algerian women’s letters, shows how humanitarian action and infrastructure could help form “vertical” alliances between French and Algerian anticolonial adherents, even during the middle of a violent decolonial war. Conversely, the pamphlet published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc evidences human rights law as the basis of a “horizontal” alliance of Third World actors who not only shared a North African geography, but were also students and women. Indeed, the end of the pamphlet included a “call to women of all countries” to act on behalf of Algeria and donate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, specifically to help “Djamila Bouhired and her companions” (back page). This document’s focus on a particular type of women’s solidarity around human rights, humanitarianism, and decolonization is significant. It shows that the relationship between women and humanitarianism is not just one of gendered care-work, and that women had a place in human rights discourse before the United Nations’ “International Year of Women” in 1975 and “Decade for Women” from 1976 to 1985. Rather, the intersection of decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism reveals women’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s to be a potential vector of decolonial and humanitarian solidarity across national and regional borders. As such, attention to women at the intersection of post-WWII decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism  may allow for a gendered reading of human rights during decolonization that can help shape our understandings of the global feminist movements that emerged in the later 1960s and 1970s.

If we can consider these evocations of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as representative of broader contemporary strategies of anticolonialism, at least in the Franco-Algerian case, then human rights and humanitarianism become more than just connected to decolonization on its national and global levels. In this view, we can see how human rights and humanitarian action were crucial vectors of solidarities that connected actors across multiple categories — Algerian, French, European, North African, Third World(ist) activists, students, women — under the banner of decolonization, whether through the “high politics” of the international law of the Geneva Conventions or the interpersonal action “from below” of sending French holiday cards to imprisoned Algerians. Continuing studies in these fields, then, might fruitfully consider the solidarities that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights made possible, in and beyond the postwar decades of decolonial conflict.


Ariel Mond is a doctoral student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she studies modern European and global history. Her dissertation research considers the intersections of French political imprisonment, the decolonization of Algeria, and the rise of postwar human rights politics from the 1940s to 1970s.


Featured Image: Abane Ramdane, Bazi Safia, Mesli Fadhila, Belmihoub Meriem and Amara Rachid, 4 May 1956, Ouazana, Algeria. Source: WikimediaCommons.

2 replies on “Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Decolonization in Solidarity: Rethinking Categories for Post-1945 History”

Great text. I wonder what echoes these kinds of publications were reflected in socialist Europe? Francophone decolonial texts were translated into Polish early (Césaire, Fanon). The French Institute in Warsaw (briefly headed by Foucault – it was during these years 1958-1959) was a place of exchange of left-wing ideas between Poland and France. The communist party followed the situation all over the world in internal bulletins. Did it also help in this, or did it deal with it? This remains an open question. I know better the history of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Korean War, about which I wrote in my book ‘Socialist Postcolonialism’. I am less familiar with the reception of the history of the Algerian decolonial war. Knowing the mechanisms of passing on knowledge about the global decolonization processes, the national liberation struggle in Asia or Africa, and the involvement of the entire Eastern Bloc, one can assume that they were involved in some way. But this probably also needs to be well described and studied.

Adam — thanks for making this great point! I’m very happy to see that my thoughts on the solidarities of decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights can be generative for thinking beyond the specific example that I discuss here. I think you’re spot on in suggesting that solidarities of socialism between the Second and Third World are also productive ways to think through the intersections of decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights, both in general and in the case of the Algerian War. Historians James Mark and Péter Apor (https://doi.org/10.1086/683608) offer one study that evidences this type of Second-Third World solidarity, documenting the importance of decolonization and Third Worldism in the socialist youth culture of post-1956 Hungary. Kristin Ghodsee’s latest book, “Second World, Second Sex” (https://www.dukeupress.edu/second-world-second-sex), offers another example of socialism’s decolonial solidarities, focusing on the case studies of connected feminist networks and women’s activism in Bulgaria and Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to the Polish examples you mention, these studies, I think, offer much evidence to suggest that connections between the Second and Third World, along with the “vertical” (French/Algerian) and “horizontal” (North African) solidarities I discuss, are productive avenues for thinking through the intersections between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights.

As you suggest, I also agree that there’s plenty of room for more studies that triangulate decolonial solidarities across western Europe, the eastern bloc, and the Third World. Young Sun Hong’s “Cold War Germany, the Third World, and the Global Humanitarian Regime” (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cold-war-germany-the-third-world-and-the-global-humanitarian-regime/C011AFF612BE98DDFFC42955E802B52F) does this exceptionally well. Her book charts East and West Germany’s parallel efforts at establishing global humanitarian regimes across the Third and decolonizing world, drawing on case studies of German intervention in North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, the Congo, and Algeria, as well as the experiences of Third World migrant laborers — and particularly Korean, Indian, and Filipino women and nurses — in East and West Germany. Hong’s book has countless rich and fascinating examples, and her discussion of the Algerian War indeed shows the importance of this war and possibilities for decolonial solidarity in both western and eastern Europe. In West Germany, which became a basis of operation for the FLN’s Fédération de France, as historian Mathilde von Bulow shows (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/west-germany-cold-war-europe-and-the-algerian-war/D657F2E4B116823ED1478886A5DB7210), German leftist youth engaged with Algerian nationalist expatriates and, as Hong writes, “helped shape the consciousness of the New Left” of the later 1960s (133). In East Germany, the GDR took an active role in supporting the FLN materially and ideologically by, for example, sending medical equipment to Algeria and producing FLN film and propaganda in East German state studios (148). The East German case is particularly interesting, since the GDR mobilized its solidarity with Algerian nationalists as evidence of the validity of its own program of international socialism. While ultimately — and importantly — Hong is most interested in showing how both East and West German global humanitarian regimes continued and reinforced the logics of racial and civilizational difference that upheld colonialism, she provides important research for understanding eastern Europe, western Europe, and the Third World in the same frame of decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights.

In terms of the specific case of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub, further research is needed to see if the testimonies of their imprisonment generated interest in the socialist bloc, or beyond France and North Africa more generally. But the works of scholarship cited above suggest that socialist central and eastern Europe is absolutely fruitful ground for considering the solidarities of postwar decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights.

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