War remains and the politics of commemoration in the wake of the Asia-Pacific War
Beatrice Trefalt

In January 1955, an official mission departed Japan for New Guinea to collect remains of the war dead and to erect commemorative monuments to fallen soldiers. Just before its departure, a diplomatic contretemps arose about the English wording on the Japanese stones: the Japanese government considered them memorials to the dead, whereas the Australian government insisted that they be mere geographical markers noting the search for remains. This article examines how the divergent politics of commemoration in Japan and Australia created this dispute, demonstrating how the remains of soldiers functioned as important signifiers well beyond their material existence. In Japan, the search for remains spoke to the nature of national duty, the acknowledgement of mourning and the possibilities for atonement. In Australia, however, they stimulated visceral resentment, because the soldiers’ remains symbolised Japanese aggression and war crimes.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
In search of the Republic of Vietnam war dead
Alex-Thái Dinh Võ

Finding, identifying and interring the war dead are ethically and ceremonially crucial tasks for healing, repairing and legitimising. Before the end of the Vietnam War, the United States had begun to look for missing Americans in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In the wake of its victory and takeover of South Vietnam, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam went to great lengths to identify and immortalise its fallen soldiers. The same cannot be said for the war dead of the Republic of Vietnam, whose fall on 30 April 1975 made the war dead stateless; consequently they have never been legitimately acknowledged by the current Vietnamese government or their former ally, the United States. This article explores the accounting efforts by Nguyen Dạc Thành and the Vietnamese American Foundation to reveal the financial, logistical, technical and political opportunities and challenges in accounting for war dead associated with a state that no longer exists.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s policies for repatriating soldiers’ remains and accounting for the missing after the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War
Liu Zhaokun

After the Chinese Civil War (1946–49), hundreds of thousands of graves of the People’s Liberation Army soldiers dotted the country’s landscape; the ensuing Korean War caused more casualties. Honouring this immense sacrifice and mobilising the survivors for its reconstruction were indispensable for the nascent People’s Republic of China. This research probes China’s policies to repatriate soldiers’ remains and account for those missing after these wars. The dilapidating status of soldiers’ graves threatened the morale of soldiers’ families, the backbone of the country’s socialist revolution. The state acknowledged families’ wishes to retrieve soldiers’ remains and nationalised their repatriation to salvage popular support. However, the deceased were not to drain the labour and resources reserved for the revolution. This principle had effectively prevented most families from retrieving remains. Accounting for missing soldiers was to ensure that only the revolutionary martyrs’ families could receive due honour and privilege.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Open Access (free)
Fate, fortune and families of fallen soldiers in nationalist China
Linh D. Vũ

Although local authorities, communities and charities played a major role in dealing with conflict fatalities, the Republican era (1911–49) saw new government initiatives to attend to the afterlives of common soldiers. Leaders of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) exemplified ambitions to govern the dead by implementing a policy of collecting and burying fallen soldiers. As the first public military cemetery, constructed in Nanjing in 1935, could not accommodate the millions of war dead in the decade of war that followed, the Nationalist state promulgated regulations to help bereaved families transport remains back to their home towns for burial. The Nationalist government began to plan more national military cemeteries after World War II, yet most commemorative projects in mainland China were interrupted by the Chinese Civil War. By constructing martyrs’ shrines and national cemeteries in Taiwan, the Nationalists are continuing their efforts to look after the military dead.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Actions for the missing: scientific and vernacular forms of war dead accounting
Tâm T. T. Ngô
Sarah Wagner

This special issue examines Asian experiences of war and mass death in the previous century, with case studies from China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam (North and South, among its diaspora and across multiple generations). In this introduction we highlight several of the wider analytical interventions offered by the articles: (1) the spatiopolitical dynamics of war dead accounting in which forms of vernacular forensic expertise interact with and inform internationally honed, empirically grounded practices of exhumation and identification; (2) the complex hierarchy of authority over remains that structures programmes of war dead accounting; (3) the variegated (as opposed to monolithic) nature of war dead themselves; and (4) the material ecosystems of remains, graves, cemeteries and the non-human forces of decay acting upon them. Finally, the introduction highlights the issue’s comparative potential: that is, what these different cultural, religious and ideological modes of meaning-making reveal about why and how human remains matter in the aftermath of war – and not just according to Western notions of national memory politics in which the soldier stands in for the state and collective mourning animates the national imaginary.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Humanitarian Disruption in Conflict Settings
Maelle L’Homme

In March 2022, intercommunal fighting forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend its activities after nearly fourteen years of operating in Agok, a small town located in the disputed Abyei Special Administrative Area (ASAA) on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. After the shock of having to close a 185-bed hospital unexpectedly came questions about the unintentional consequences of MSF’s presence. With the benefit of hindsight, the organisation deemed it important to examine the potentially destabilising influence it might have had on the local environment. This article builds on an internal capitalisation exercise conducted with the aim of documenting MSF’s experience and critically reflecting on the potential of aid being a factor in disrupting local balances, or worse, a factor in fuelling violence. By exploring the premises that MSF was an anchor factor for the population and that the economic fallouts made Agok a place worth fighting for, the author investigates the long-term, unintended impact of MSF’s presence on the local political economy of conflict, as well as the organisation’s possible share of responsibility for aggravating intercommunal grievances. Based on the observation that aid inevitably benefits some more than others, the author also asks to what extent MSF was aware of the adverse consequences of its presence and whether more awareness would have led to different operational choices and mitigating measures. This questioning does not detract in any way from the project’s achievements in terms of providing high-quality secondary healthcare in a context where there was none, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
Duncan McLean
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
What the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Shown Us about the Humanitarian Sphere’s Approach to Local Faith Engagement
Ellen Goodwin

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be much more than a health emergency, with serious social, political and economic consequences. The diverse challenges for people and communities, specifically in low- and middle-income and fragile contexts, have necessitated multi-sectoral responses from international humanitarian and development actors. For many international faith-inspired organisations (IFIOs), these responses included a faith dimension. Drawing on interviews with staff working in IFIOs during the pandemic, this paper will argue that the COVID-19 pandemic saw many, although not all, IFIOs engage with local faith actors and local communities of faith more quickly, and in increasingly diverse and meaningful ways, than during previous comparable public health crises. This shift in willingness to engage with faith and religion at the local level has been reflected, to some extent, by the broader humanitarian sphere. The COVID-19 pandemic therefore marks an important step towards more faith-literate humanitarian responses, with many IFIOs at the forefront of this progress.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Lessons from the MSF Listen Experience
Jake Leyland
Sandrine Tiller
, and
Budhaditya Bhattacharya

While health misinformation is important to address in humanitarian settings, over-focusing on it can obfuscate a more holistic understanding of a community’s needs in a crisis. Through Médecins Sans Frontières’ experience of deploying a platform to tackle health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, this field report argues that, while important, health misinformation became a diversionary topic during COVID-19, which represented a lack of trust between communities, humanitarian organisations and health institutions, rather a fundamental obstacle to effective humanitarian interventions.

From our practitioners’ viewpoint, we reflect on the deployment of the ‘MSF Listen’ platform in our programmes and how it evolved from a purely misinformation-focused digital tool to a broader workflow and approach to understanding community needs in crises through accountable management of community feedback.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Emma Tomalin
Olivia Wilkinson

This paper explores findings from research carried out alongside a humanitarian project called ‘Bridging the Gap (BtG): The Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan’. BtG aimed to better understand the barriers that stand in the way of engagement between local faith actors (LFAs) and international humanitarians (IHs) and to introduce learning opportunities (e.g. training and workshops) to address these. We share perspectives from the LFAs who participated in this ‘localisation’ project about what it means to become ‘legitimate’ humanitarian actors that are recognised and trusted by the international system and why this is important for them, as well as what BtG tells us about the legitimacy of the international humanitarian system from the point of view of LFAs and LFAs’ legitimacy in the eyes of their local communities. We also reflect upon the ways in which the processes of NGO-isation and professionalisation that accompany this journey to become ‘legitimate’, can compromise and undervalue the very qualities that local actors are presumed to possess. This does not indicate the failure of the localisation agenda, but that bold action is needed to make localisation more inclusive in ways that might challenge some areas of humanitarian orthodoxy.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs