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Ordering Compassion: Humanitarianism and the Rules-based Order

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Within world politics today we see an increasingly complex network of actors, institutions and practices that has developed during the last two centuries to address humanitarian needs during crises. The evolution of complex international network of actors and institutions appears to have coincided with the emergence of the liberal rules-based order. This raises important questions about the relationship between this international humanitarian system and the rules-based order; and the degree to which the rules-based order is a prerequisite for an international humanitarian system. This paper addresses three key points. First, it argues that the international humanitarian system is not simply a product of the liberal rules-based order but also played a role in the constitution of that order. Secondly, there is some correlation between the challenges faced by the rules-based order and the pressures and strains on the international humanitarian system. Challenges faced by humanitarianism are also important sites of challenge for the rules-based order. But my third point is to ask whether our understanding of the international humanitarian system is perhaps skewed by the degree to which we understand humanitarianism as tethered to the rules and the ‘formal’ humanitarian system, which is based on ideas and institutions that emerged from Western traditions of humanitarianism. This focus can mask a broader range of actors and institutions pursuing humanitarian purposes than more traditional understandings of the system assumes. Some of the perceived challenges to the international humanitarian system emanate from the growing visibility of these actors and institutions. A more encompassing vision of the international humanitarian system suggests that the relationship between humanitarianism and the liberal rules-based order is more complex, variegated and contested than is often assumed.

This talk is part of the Cambridge IR and History Seminar Series series.

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