An imperative to act: Boarding the relief flights of the international committee of the red cross in Biafra (1967– 1970)

Mie Vestergaard

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This article analyzes the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) humanitarian politics of intervention during its relief operation in the Nigeria–Biafra conflict (1967–1970). The humanitarian response to the conflict was a foundational moment for everyday humanitarianism marking a shift from “traditional” state-oriented humanitarianism to an expansion in scope, actors, and practices operating outside of the formal structures of the state. By examining recently declassified archival records, I trace the ICRC’s shifting categorizations of victims in a changing humanitarian landscape. The article makes two main contributions: First, I demonstrate empirically how the Nigeria–Biafra conflict challenged the ICRC’s definition of humanitarian engagement and understandings of victimhood. Second, I argue that the ICRC had a clearer understanding than usually conveyed of how the Biafran leadership used the language of humanitarianism and victimhood to deploy an international response. Conclusively, I reflect on what the history of the ICRC in Biafra can teach scholars of contemporary humanitarianism. © 2018 Caucus for a New Political Science.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Political Science
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)675-690
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Disaster
  • Red Cross
  • Humanitarian action

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