French military equipment being loaded at N'Djamena airbase, Chad, for transportation to Mali as part of Operation Serval, launched against Islamist fighters in the north of the country in January 2013.

Imperialist Humanitarianism?

What should we make of France's back-to-back interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic? How far did Belgium's economic interests in the Congolese Republic survive the stresses of decolonisation and civil breakdown in black Africa's largest former colony? How far did past colonial connections determine Britain's choice of strategic partners in the years following Britain's empire in the imperial pull-outs of the 1960s? Martin Thomas, Director of the Centre for the Study of War, State and Society, will be exploring these questions within a project on 'Imperialist Humanitarianism' funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.

As the project title implies, the chosen sites and the practices of contemporary European military interventions in Africa and Western Asia are intimately connected to the imperial pasts of Europe's former colonial powers. In particular, understandings of political violence and state legitimacy are embedded in decolonisation experiences. Yet scholars of post-colonial interventionism rarely engage with the contested history of decolonisation. Instead, the humanitarian imperatives and challenges to sovereignty inherent in peacekeeping deployments are typically explained in relation to changing United Nations doctrine and changing partnership arrangements with regional bodies such as the Organisation of African Unity, forerunner to the African Union. The innovation promised by this project is to bring these two literatures, and their different methodologies, into dialogue.

The project connects with the ISRF's goals in three ways above all. First is by pursuing a different and distinct approach to the connections between real life problems and their historical antecedents. Second is by offering insights into a new concept of 'imperialist humanitarianism' that helps explain the priorities and practices of peace-building in the former colonial world. And third is by extending the focus in the study of European humanitarian interventionism beyond theories of soft power, development assistance, and quantitative analysis to encompass empirical research into the precedents and legacies resulting from European decolonisation.