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      Between Sovereignty and Race: The Bombardment of Hospitals in the Italo-Ethiopian War and the Colonial Imprint of International Law

      1 , 2
      State Crime Journal
      Pluto Journals
      Italo-Ethiopian war, hospitals, human shields, international law, race


            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 between 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 uncivilized 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.


            Author and article information

            State Crime Journal
            Pluto Journals
            1 January 2019
            : 8
            : 1 ( doiID: 10.13169/statecrime.8.issue-1 )
            : 104-125
            [1 ] University of Edinburgh
            [2 ] Queen Mary University of London
            © 2019 International State Crime Initiative

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            Italo-Ethiopian war,hospitals,human shields,international law,race


            1. Benito Mussolini responding to the accusation of bombing hospitals in Ethiopia during the 1935–1936 war of aggression, cited in Baudendistel (2006).

            2. As it turned out, the attacks on Abyssinia constituted a turning point in fascist imaginative policies, triggering the advent of a colonial cinematic enterprise (Courriol 2014: 124, see also Ben Ghiat 2015). After his return from Ethiopia, Vittorio became the director of one of the leading Italian cinema journals – Cinema. Quindicinale di divulgazione cinematografica – and a successful film producer. In this capacity, Vittorio Mussolini co-wrote the script of the film “Luciano ## Serra: Pilot” with Roberto Rossellini, the founder of the Italian neo-realist cinematographic school. The film's plot revolves around the figure of Luciano Serra, the hero-pilot who sacrifices himself to save his son after the latter's airplane was shot down and he was about to be captured by the anti-colonial resistance. In the film, which received the Mussolini Cup at the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Ethiopians are often represented as fighting from hidden positions, attacking the Italians by surprise. The movie reflects Italy's recurrent nightmare, that its pilots could be seized and killed by the Ethiopian resistance – one of the reasons with which Italy justified its indiscriminate bombardments of Ethiopia during the 1935–1936 war.

            3. On using human shields to frame the enemy's methods of warfare as war crimes in contemporary wars, see Gordon and Perugini (2016) and Perugini and Gordon (2017).

            4. Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive Projectiles Under 400 Grammes Weight. Saint Petersburg, 29 November/11 December 1868.

            5. Hague Regulations (1907), Article 25. Following World War II, the principle of distinction was codified in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocol.

            6. For a critical history of the principle of distinction, see Kinsella (2011).

            7. Fabian Klose (2011, 2013) traces the beginning of ICRC's involvement in colonial contexts back to the Algerian and Kenyan wars of liberation in the 1950s and 1960s (see also Pringle 2017). However, the Ethiopian case reveals that the ICRC's involvement in colonial contexts and its complicity with colonial powers started much earlier. In a recent article, Vasuki Nesiah shows how the founder of Red Cross, Henry Dunant, conceived the French colonization of Algeria as a “good fortune for all” as he condemned the crimes committed in Solferino. She also points out how another ICRC co-founder of the Red Cross, Gustave Moynier, was an “enthusiastic supporter of King Leopold in the Congo” (Nesiah 2016: 324).

            8. At the beginning of the 1930s, Liberia's membership was subjected to a similar pressure to that faced by Ethiopia. The Liberian government was asked to implement administrative and financial reforms and to abolish slavery, as a condition to remain a League member (Mackenzie 1934).

            9. The arms embargo had strong repercussions on Ethiopia's capacity to defend itself against the Italian aggression.

            10. On the use of humanitarian and human rights arguments to justify forms of domination, see Perugini and Gordon (2015).

            11. Journal of the League of Nations, 92nd Session of the Council, Annex 1608, July 1936: 868.

            12. Alessandro Pavolini, “Nuova e schiacciante prova dell'abuso dell'emblema della Croce Rossa in Etiopia”, Il Corriere della Sera 5 January 1936.

            13. Waugh cited in Paolo Zappa, “Quello che si nasconde in Etiopia sotto l'inviolabile ‘Croce Rossa'”, La Stampa 25 November 1935, accessed on 29 January 2018 at http://www.archiviolastampa.it/component/option,com_lastampa/task,search/mod,libera/Itemid,3,/action,viewer/page,1/articleid,1624_02_1935_0281_0001_22460489/

            14. “Virgin ammette”, La Stampa 7 January 1936, accessed on 29 January 2018 at http://www.archiviolastampa.it/component/option,com_lastampa/task,search/mod,libera/action,viewer/Itemid,3/page,1/articleid,1622_02_1936_0006_0001_22461793/

            15. “Contro la frode ginevrina”, La Stampa 1 February 1936, accessed on 29 January 2018 at http://www.archiviolastampa.it/component/option,com_lastampa/task,search/mod,libera/action,viewer/Itemid,3/page,1/articleid,1135_01_1936_0028_0001_24281494/

            16. See Journal of the League of Nations, 91st Session of the Council, Annex 1952, April 1936, and Journal of the League of Nations, 90th Session of the Council, Annex 1587, February 1936.

            17. Journal of the League of Nations, 91st Session of the Council, Annex 1952, April 1936: 408.

            18. Journal of the League of Nations, 91st Session of the Council, Annex 1952, April 1936: 433–436.

            19. Ironically, the silk glove used by the League when dealing with the Italians did not prevent the latter's voluntary withdrawal from the international organization in 1937.

            20. Nonetheless, some scholars consider the debate surrounding the Italo-Ethiopian War as evidence that in spite of its inadequacy, the League constituted a significant change in the international order (Friedmann 1964). The prominent legal scholar Hans Kelsen (1941) argued that in the Ethiopian case, the League had “at least made certain efforts to fulfill its duty in the cases of illegal aggression undertaken by member states against other member states” (80). Others interpreted the League's decision not to hinder Italy's aggression against Ethiopia as the manifestation of the prevalence of national interests and the principle of national sovereignty over international cooperation (Fenwick 1939) or as a demonstration of the disconnection between an ideal of equality among strong and weak member states promoted by the League and the factual inequality (Thomas 1951).


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