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From Solferino to peacebuilding – Lisa Schirch’s family tradition of humanitarianism

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This essay by EMU research professor Lisa Schirch, PhD, was first published on the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross on June 23, 2014. As background context, June 24 marks the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino. The fighting in northern Italy pitted allied French and Sardinian troops against Austrian forces in a struggle over Italian unity. It was the most horrific bloodbath Europe had known since Waterloo and served as a catalyst for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. In addition to teaching and researching at EMU, Schirch is the director of human security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She has worked in more than 20 countries, most recently in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Fiji, and Lebanon. In this essay, Schirch reflects on how her family’s tradition of humanitarianism has led her to work towards conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

My great, great grandfather Pierre Schirch was part of the 75th regiment of the French Army that arrived in Solferino on June 25, 1859 – a day after the 15-hour battle occurred. According to French records, Pierre and his regiment were stationed for a week at the southern end of the battle line – almost certainly to pick up the dead and injured – around the same time that Swiss businessman Henry Dunant would have also arrived in Solferino.

Hearing the cries of 40,000 wounded and dying men led Dunant to provide care and assistance to the injured soldiers from all warring sides. In the wake of this bloody battle, Dunant imagined and later established the International Committee of the Red Cross, which serves as the custodian of the Geneva Conventions and the guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL).

Four generations after my great, great grandfather experienced the immense cries of human suffering at Solferino, today I teach IHL and related topics to military forces. Surprisingly, I didn’t know this personal family history when I started teaching IHL 15 years ago.

When he was conscripted into the French Army, Pierre Schirch brought with him a tradition of humanitarian assistance from his own ancestors, who belonged to a small religious group in Switzerland known to assist their enemies. As a farmer with a pacifist background, it is not clear from historical records (recently found by my distant relative still living in France) if Pierre served in a combatant or noncombatant role.

Pierre eventually emigrated to the United States, presumably to ensure that his only living son would not be conscripted into another European war. In the US, he passed on a tradition of humanitarianism through support for the Mennonite Central Committee, one of the earliest faith-based humanitarian agencies. In this same tradition, I came to teach about the Battle of Solferino and IHL at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, with a focus on how IHL relates to local, civilian peacebuilding efforts.

Most of my students are community leaders from Syria, Colombia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Like the Solferino villagers who cared for the wounded alongside Dunant, the spirit of humanitarianism continues to be found all over the planet.

Despite the growth of a mostly Western architecture of professional humanitarians, these local efforts face many of the same challenges that Dunant did on the Solferino battlefield. With the exception of National Red Cross or Red Crescent staff and volunteers, many local first responders do not belong to registered humanitarian agencies with a widely recognized logo that can afford some protection and status for relieving suffering in the midst of war.

For example, in the 1990s, my former student Suraya Sadeed went about negotiating access with the Taliban to deliver trucks of blankets to IDPs in Afghanistan. In northern Kenya, my Somali colleagues move between tribes to deliver food aid and set up water management boards.

Local organizations responding to human suffering usually move fluidly from humanitarian assistance onto what many call “peacebuilding” that includes a wider set of activities to prevent, reduce, manage or respond to the root causes of violence. Local NGOs and civil society organizations conducting peacebuilding efforts – such as mediation between competing tribes – require an independent, impartial, and even neutral status to move between armed groups without becoming a target.

Many of these local civil society organizations work impartially and independently – more Dunantist than Wilsonian  – so as to respond to a local community’s expressed needs and hopes rather than donor priorities. While distinct from purely humanitarian agencies, local civil society organizations often hang framed statements of the humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, neutrality and humanity on their office walls to signal their importance.  

Many humanitarians do not recognize that the field of peacebuilding stems from local responses to conflicts. Hundreds of NGOs and universities were setting up peacebuilding programs long before this concept became popular at the United Nations, where it has taken on an explicit political agenda.

This older civil society approach to peacebuilding is not the same as today’s UN and government peacebuilding initiatives, which often resemble top-down political stabilization aimed at elite interests rather than locally-owned and led transitions supporting human security.

Unfortunately, many Western-based humanitarians decry the concept of peacebuilding thinking that it implies regime change or civil-military integration that endangers IHL’s separation of civilians from military targets.

But structural civil-military integration is rejected by civil society peacebuilding organizations. For example, in Afghanistan, donors looking for “implementing partners” asked local NGOs to choose between funding and their principles of impartiality and independence. But Afghan civil society widely opposed the concept of working for government and military contractors to achieve Wilsonian policy goals. Yet there were few international organizations standing up for the rights of these local NGOs to remain independent and impartial.

The ICRC plays an important role in raising awareness and promoting respect for IHL among the parties to conflicts across the globe. It also plays an important role in educating lawyers, legislators, policymakers and academics, like myself, about the protections IHL affords to civilians and those no longer engaged in fighting. The cardinal rules of IHL – distinction between military and civilian targets, protection of civilians, and proportion of military benefit to civilian harm – are as appropriate today to the new work of peacebuilding civil society organizations as they were to relief efforts throughout the last 150 years.

Pierre Schirch’s experience tending to the wounded at the Battle of Solferino 155 years ago seems to have tumbled down my family tree, helping to plant within me a commitment to relieve human suffering. Today, I develop training materials on civil-military relations so that the principles of IHL that evolved out of that terrible battle can be applied more widely to both humanitarian and civil society peacebuilding efforts. I am grateful to carry on Pierre’s humanitarian spirit and to be linked by history and by profession to Henry Dunant’s Red Cross legacy.

This essay is reprinted courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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