Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism

Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism

Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism

Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism

Synopsis

In The Battle for Algeria Jennifer Johnson reinterprets one of the most violent wars of decolonization: the Algerian War (1954-1962). Johnson argues that the conflict was about who--France or the National Liberation Front (FLN)--would exercise sovereignty of Algeria. The fight between the two sides was not simply a military affair; it also involved diverse and competing claims about who was positioned to better care for the Algerian people's health and welfare. Johnson focuses on French and Algerian efforts to engage one another off the physical battlefield and highlights the social dimensions of the FLN's winning strategy, which targeted the local and international arenas. Relying on Algerian sources, which make clear the centrality of health and humanitarianism to the nationalists' war effort, Johnson shows how the FLN leadership constructed national health care institutions that provided critical care for the population and functioned as a protostate. Moreover, Johnson demonstrates how the FLN's representatives used postwar rhetoric about rights and national self-determination to legitimize their claims, which led to international recognition of Algerian sovereignty.

By examining the local context of the war as well as its international dimensions, Johnson deprovincializes North Africa and proposes a new way to analyze how newly independent countries and nationalist movements engage with the international order. The Algerian case exposed the hypocrisy of selectively applying universal discourse and provided a blueprint for claim-making that nonstate actors and anticolonial leaders throughout the Third World emulated. Consequently, The Battle for Algeria explains the FLN's broad appeal and offers new directions for studying nationalism, decolonization, human rights, public health movements, and concepts of sovereignty.

Excerpt

On 24 September 1958, Ferhat Abbas (Figure 1), the newly appointed president of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) and longtime figure in Algerian nationalist politics, wrote a memorandum from Cairo to Léopold Boissier, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Abbas was responding to Boissier’s letter from May of that year, in which Boissier proposed to the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French government that they both commit to upholding the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a step that he believed would “humanize the Algerian conflict.” In his lengthy reply, Abbas expressed his willingness to cooperate with the proposed terms if Boissier removed the expression that the “conflict did not have an international character.” This condition, though politically charged and controversial, was only the first of many shrewd requests. Abbas laid out five issues to which the French government would have to agree before the Algerian nationalists would publicly pledge to follow the Geneva Conventions: the colonial administration would treat civilians and unarmed soldiers humanely, the wounded and sick would receive medical treatment, captured members of the armed forces would be granted prisoner of war status, the French government would inform the ICRC of any intended legal action against members of the Algerian armed forces, and, last, reprisals of any kind would not be permitted.

Abbas’s conditions indicate an astute understanding of the political landscape and moral stakes of the moment. He had the ear of the man running the most influential humanitarian organization of his day and he wanted to make sure he played the opportunity correctly. Abbas demonstrated intimate knowledge of the Geneva Conventions, which helped redefine human rights for individual civilians and noncombatants by extending basic physical and legal protections to previously excluded categories of people. The revised Geneva Conventions were a significant victory for anticolonial national . . .

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