Convergence, Confusion, Conflation - An Analysis of the Intersection of Human Rights and Humanitarian Discourses

Alexis Comninos

Convergence, Confusion, Conflation - An Analysis of the Intersection of Human Rights and Humanitarian Discourses
Comninos, Alexis
Thesis Advisor(s):
Andreopoulos, George
M.A., Columbia University
Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Persistent URL:
This study starts with an observation: human rights and humanitarianism are often conflated into one and the same thing, even by scholars of these respective fields. A muddled use of terminology makes this lack of clarity evident; as such, the importance and power of language and discourse lies at the centre of this project. This thesis is set out to explore intersections and map convergences of human rights and humanitarianism—as discourses, as practices, and as related bodies of law (International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and Humanitarian Law (IHL)). In doing so, it seeks to draw attention to the beneficial potential of an interaction that can –at times– be synergetic, but also to the tensions it creates, when, far from mutually strengthening, human rights and humanitarianism work in contradiction. First, this thesis analyses the rapprochement between IHL and IHRL. This initial focus on the legal frameworks sets the ground for the subsequent study of converging discourses and practices, but it is also intrinsically valuable, laying bare some of the tensions around the jurisdictions, scopes of application, and protections afforded by these bodies of law. Second, focusing on four big player – two on the human rights side (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), and two on the humanitarian side (the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières), this thesis turns to analysing dominant discourses. Noting the increased overlap in scopes of activities, and thus in discourse, it studies the impacts of the humanitarian-isation of human rights reporting, as well as of the human rights-isation of humanitarian discourse and practice. Looking at the predicament between denunciation and access, central to humanitarian work, we see how the pervasion of rights-speak has influenced that dilemma, and the way humanitarian actors navigate it. Third, taking inspiration from Raymond Williams’s keyword approach, this study then zeroes in on the term ‘protection’, having identified it as central to this convergence. A closer analysis of this term’s evolution, (contested) meanings and uses allows us to unlock understandings of this phenomenon. This thesis considers ‘Protection’ –ubiquitous in both discourses– as it partly constitutes, and furthers the convergence. This thesis studies the efforts to make its definition consensual and some of the consequences of the confusion around it. Finally, by analysing the compounded terms of ‘protection of civilians’ and ‘responsibility to protect’, it explores the ways in which ‘protection’ penetrated UN discourse, acting as a Trojan horse for the tensions created by the convergence of human rights and humanitarianism
Humanitarian assistance
Human rights
Human rights advocacy
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch (Organization)
International Committee of the Red Cross
Médecins sans frontières (Association)
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Suggested Citation:
Alexis Comninos, , Convergence, Confusion, Conflation - An Analysis of the Intersection of Human Rights and Humanitarian Discourses, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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