Between sovereignty and race : the bombardment of hospitals in the Italo-Ethiopian War and the colonial imprint of international law
Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon
Host item entries:
State crime journal, Vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, p. 104-125
Bibliography : p. 123-125
Italy's war crimes during the 1935-1936 invasion of Ethiopia have been broadly documented by different historians of Italian colonialism. However, its systematic bombardment of medical facilities operated by different Red Cross Societies is much less known. Relying on archival materials, we show how the fascist regime presented these attacks as legitimate reprisal; it was, the Italians claimed, the Ethiopian forces who had violated international law, particularly the principle of distinction, when they used medical facilities to hide. Reconstructing the debates about the Red Cross medical units, we show how Ethiopia's sovereign status rendered international law applicable, since the war was carried out betwen two internationally recognized countries rather than between a sovereign state and its colonial subjects. Simultaneously, however, Ethiopia's status as a sovereign state was extremely precarious. The African country was successfully framed by both Italy and the Red Cross as uncivilised through the creation of an artificial link between the ostensible inability to follow the principle of distinction (i.e. hiding behind medical units) and the population's race. The move from sovereignty to race is, we claim, illuminating because it reveals how the inclusion of Ethiopia into the family of nations not only did not undermine the colonial imprint of international law, but also helped cement it. It is therefore crucial to think about the process of colonial inclusion into the liberal order of humanity against the grain, and to reveal how integration through sovereignty can be transmogrified into racist exclusion.