In folio: ‘Yo lo vi’. Goya witnessing the disasters of war: an appeal to the sentiment of humanity

31 December 2011 Paul Bouvier

Editor's Note:The humanitarian mission maintains its ultimate objective of preventing and alleviating human suffering in situations of extreme crisis. In a different vein from the main subject of this edition- the future of humanitarian action – and using the power of images, Paul Bouvier, ICRC Senior Medical Advisor, brings us back exactly two centuries, to the 'Peninsular War' between French, Spanish and British, among the fiercest of the Napoleonic Wars.

The artist Francisco de Goya produced a series of etched plates known as The Disasters of War, which offered a hitherto uncommon view of war. By showing the horror and devastation of armed violence, the resulting dehumanization, and the distress and suffering of the victims, he denounced the consequences of war and famine and the ensuing political repression. Goya's lucid, compassionate, yet uncompromising depictions of war and its consequences are not only unique but also highly relevant today. His work is also an outcry and a plea for acts of humanity in the turmoil of armed violence, and anticipates the initiative that Henry Dunant would be prompted to take sixty years later, in Solferino. In a way, Goya announced Dunant.

Walking us through a selection of Goya's sketches, Paul Bouvier looks at victims, perpetrators, and eye-witnesses, and discusses how these images relate to the contemporary experience of humanitarian workers faced with the extreme violence of war. The author decrypts Goya's sketches and relates them to the essence of humanitarian action as a response to human suffering.

About the author

Paul Bouvier
Senior Medical Adviser for the ICRC

Paul Bouvier is Senior Medical Adviser for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Lecturer at the Institute of Global Health, University of Geneva. He is a medical doctor with specialization in pediatrics and public health. He has carried out research on child sexual abuse and developed programs for the prevention of sexual abuse. His work at the ICRC focuses on health and ethical issues in humanitarian action, as well as training humanitarian professionals in public health and ethical principles to respond to crises and armed conflicts.