Author Archives: Joshua Paul St. Clair

IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “Our House: Aid, Development, and Sustainability in the Globalized Age”

As the 48th International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) approaches this Sunday, we share with you a brief of a lecture given on last year’s course by Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at SDSN.

After 18 months of international dialogue with experts from UN organizations, academia, civil society, business, and various national statistical offices, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) headed by economist Jeffrey Sachs drafted its 2015 report. The report, Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, “outlines how a comprehensive indicator framework might be established to support the goals and targets proposed by the Open Working Group on [Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)].”

These goals encompass economic, social, and environmental policy fields and aim to provide a quantifiable framework for the construction and monitoring of local, national, regional, and global SDG progress. “We can’t isolate economic, social, and environmental policy anymore,” noted Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at SDSN. Walsh was leading IDHA’s afternoon lecture on the transition from crisis to development—where the need for humanitarian relief turns to that of nation building and sustainability. “Maybe in talking about that transition,” proposed Walsh, “we really see how to connect development to the humanitarian world.”

This connection, however, contains multiple points of resistance. The policy fields included in the report “have to be integrated both in the developing world and the developed world,” noted Walsh. But as the students quickly confirmed, such sustainable integration, not only between policy fields but also between international departments and organizations, often proves to be a difficult—and arguably unfeasible—partnership.

“Jeffrey Sachs’ answer to this is, of course, [that] development is what’s really important,” Walsh explained, “because if you don’t make progress in development, you’re just setting up crises of the future.” Ascribing financial primacy to crisis aid may provide temporary security solutions, but it fails to combat the very conditions from which future conflicts, and therefore future spending, will later arise—and will continue to arise—at the expense of the international community. Development becomes imperative, and Sachs “already thinks the resources are being wrongly allocated.”

Unfortunately, such challenges will not simply evaporate, nor can they be swept aside. In fact, successful progress with the sustainability goals outlined in the report hinges on resolving precisely these difficulties. Partnership is the fulcrum by which SDG progress is set into motion; progress is not made unless partnership is achieved. The “transformative ideas” brought to light by the report underscore this need for universality.

“Before we used to think of development as simply overseas development aid or foreign aid, where it’s the northern hemisphere donating to the southern hemisphere,” Walsh explained, “and that the southern hemisphere has to ‘catch up’ and work.” Environmental issues and climate change models radically challenge such assumptions and put pressure on the global community—though in terms of climate change, responsibility rests primarily with the northern hemisphere.

“But we fear it’s not just environmental issues,” Walsh admitted. “When people look at global value chains and industrial structures, there’s more and more of a realization with global finance and global trade—and even with global migration—that really the world has gotten much more interconnected.” The interconnectivity of global challenges calls for a holistic approach, despite the continued “polarization” of governmental departments and institutions. “We cannot in isolation look at security, in isolation look at social development, in isolation look at environment,” explained Walsh. Nor for that matter can these issues be solely the responsibility of governments. “Solutions have to be found where private sector, civil society, the government, and academia” intersect and where the incentives of each align.

“Households naturally [implement] sustainable approaches,” began Walsh, hoping to better explain the difficulty in aligning interests. “Any household I know, they focus a lot on children (they sacrifice a lot to put kids through school); […] the adults are investing in pension schemes and other things so that they will have security when they’re old; there is always a struggle around nutrition, so that when you’re young you eat properly so that you’ll be healthier when you’re older. This is what households are doing: they are all the time on the medium-long-term plan—always. When there’s a big financial shock, […] they delay fertility decisions; they take kids out of private schools; […] they don’t go on holiday. […] Whatever they have to do, they make that adjustment and that response to keep them on track to meet their long-term goals. Do we think governments do that? No. Do we think the private sector does that? Do we think NGOs do that? And this is the problem. This, to me, is the essence of [the question] of how do we somehow align the values and align all these groups and have a more medium-term, long-term perspective.”

“The vision here, under Jeffrey Sachs,” Walsh concluded, “was to start thinking about these types of partnerships and how they might deliver sustainable development goals.” For the UN, ‘sustainability’ entails the interaction between “three pillars:” economy, society, and environment. Walsh anticipated the audience’s concern: Oftentimes, “you might look at foreign direct investment and investment goals, and you might say, ‘that’s the evil of the world; their going in with their value chains to get the lowest cost labor, the lowest cost raw materials without much respect for the environment—the whole world is fused with these value chains and its very very destructive.’”

This assumption is certainly not unfounded. But “on the other hand,” countered Walsh, “you could look at industrial policy at a nation state where governments can have investment criteria.” Governments possess the capacity to dictate economic terms and set clear investment incentives. In theory, companies and corporations “should not really be trying to exploit gaps in societies and environments,” said Walsh; “all those gaps should be closed.” They should instead be incentivized to be on one level “mindful of human rights” and on another level “creating positive outcomes for societies and environments.”

This is of course the ideal, but as Walsh explained, such a project is not unattainable. Creating positive outcomes becomes a matter of creating “a demand for responsible investment.” The difficulty arises in the reconciliation of two key policy challenges: sustaining economic growth and tackling rising inequality. “The challenge of the Sustainable Development Project,” Walsh clarified, “is that we need to start thinking about new institutions, new ways of doing things, new policies that actually allow us to have economic prosperity but [those that generate] much more inclusive societies.”

Walsh drew the students’ attention to one particular working group goal outlined in the report—Goal 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Indicators for attaining this include the reduction of violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and arms flow, as well as the promotion of the rule of law and equal access to justice.

This goal, Walsh believed, falls most closely in line with the efforts of humanitarians on the ground. While it is certainly ambitious and perhaps lacking in the level of accountability or adequate “benchmarks” that many students believed requisite in assessing development, the goal, nevertheless, acts as a clear enunciation of sustainable objectives for the international community. One must consider the “developmental histories” of our own countries, Walsh explained. A state does not simply “jump” from one stage of development to the next; the process occurs slowly and often with the assistance of external players. “We have to build the nation state before the nation state can take responsibility,” Walsh concluded.

To better understand this development, it can be useful to run the process in reverse—understanding the factors that destabilize states and lead to collapse. “I wanted to try and get back to why a state fails,” explained Walsh, “and then—in terms of even your basic military and humanitarian intervention and what happens at ground zero—[ask] what sort of principles and what sort of things should really be happening in the humanitarian, the military, and the development interface.” What factors contribute to societal unrest and state instability, and how can the knowledge of these factors produce potential solutions for external organizations in constructing “development pathways from conflict”?

In his paper, Patterns of Conflict in the Great Lakes Region, Walsh analyzes the discrepancy between conflict developments across neighboring African states. The report juxtaposes two separate “zones”: zone 1—comprising Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—representing the “conflict” states, and its “counterweight,” zone 2—comprising Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia —representing the “peaceful states.” The goal, as outlined in the report, is to “identify a set of structural and historical factors (if any), that differentiate the zone 1 from the zone 2 states and which can explain the incidence of conflicts across time and countries.”

“What I’m searching for is a set of structural factors—a combination of things, whether they’re economic, social, or government structures—that makes you more vulnerable to conflict or less,” Walsh explained. By juxtaposing historical, economic, societal, and governmental developments, Walsh was searching for the underlying conditions that gave zone 1 a greater propensity for unrest. “The argument that I am going to make is that those who embraced developmentparticularly more openness in [their] society and their economies and were less fractional (less [prone] to creating two separate groups) were the ones who came out the other side without conflict.

Walsh noted some possible objections to his methodology. Some theorists maintain that every conflict is “idiosyncratic” and thus resistant to the kind of statistical analysis academics such as himself may hope to perform. If this idiosyncrasy were the case, however, analysis would reveal statistical uncertainties, and Walsh believed his findings told a much different story. Though the largest single indicator on the regression was precisely these “idiosyncratic effects by region and by conflict,” the indicator only accounted for about 40% of the variation, meaning there was a combination of separate, quantifiable factors contributing to zone 1’s propensity for conflict. (The fact that the idiosyncrasies was the largest single indicator means only that no other one factor could determine the variation between zones; it was thus a combination of historical, economic, societal, and governmental factors that contributed to this variation).

One of the most significant of such factors was colonial history. Colonization often lead to linguistic and ethnic fractionalization, destabilizing factors that later impacted social and economic development. The colonial power that had the most detrimental effect on states was Belgium. The Belgians used a particular type of strategy of indirect rule where they would “use and augment previous distinctions to define a local ruling elite.” This system proved the most destructive and “was a much bigger feature of Rwanda, Uganda, etc. that naturally had a north-south divide,” Walsh explained. Belgian rule acts a natural indicator of ethnic divide, but the Belgians were not the only force that perpetuated such divisions —Uganda, for instance, while belonging to zone 1, was not colonized by Belgium, but was rather divided due to its topography. What the Belgian indicator represents is rather the much greater destabilizing trend of ethnic divisions, perpetuated either by history or geography.

As the report concludes, “zone 1 states began the period of independence with serious vulnerabilities: particular forms of colonialism interlocked with ethnic divisions to produce conflict potential. However this was far from determining. It was the addition of other factors—military dictatorships, an isolation from the wider economy, and, particularly as violence developed, a hollowing out of the adult population and a destruction of civil society, that produced high conflict risk.” Likewise, countries in zone 2 though beginning their development trajectories on much more favorable historical conditions, nevertheless, required “subsequent choices and events, openness to international trade and aid, civilian dictatorships with strong integrative ideologies [(dictatorships indicated statistically greater levels of stability)], that permitted the building of cultural, political, and civil society barriers— [like an] immune system—against conflict.”

Though the conclusion produces no groundbreaking discoveries in the generation of conflict, it does provide a quantifiable explanation to compliment contemporary literature. It also helps to isolate developmental factors such as economic and political structures that may themselves help to “mitigate the initial conditions” of conflict —colonization, ethnic divisions, language, etc.

“When we go in with humanitarian action or we do capacity building, to build a state, build a colony, build a society,” explained Walsh, “we [should be] looking at how these economic or social indicators of development” may help in the intervention during times of conflict, and later, in the prevention of future conflicts. And in the end, the knowledge that prevention is critical and indeed possible becomes essential. “Those who are in the humanitarian world and the development world,” concluded Walsh, “have to believe that if we go into other countries, that we have to [contribute to a] change for good—that we’re pushing or nudging society, politics, and the economy in a direction that’s peaceful, that’s inclusive and responsible.” Otherwise, why go in at all?


Lecture given by Patrick Walsh, Senior Adviser at UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

Professor Patrick Walsh also gave a TED talk this past February 2016 focusing on the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and how it is an agenda of the people with the responsibility of implementation by the people. He delves into how people must use their influence over their livelihoods, civil society, and governance to create successful partnerships on local, national, and international levels.



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IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “The Moral Cartographer: Difficulties in the Construction of Humanitarian Ethics”

“When I introduce ‘ethics’ there’s a tendency for there to be a big yawn,” began Anthony Land, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the IIHA. “One imagines,” he continued, “I’m going to get into a very boring subject, which is only really [covered in] those big books on the bottom shelf of the library, collecting dust.” The audience laughed. But Land was quick to note that this approach was “not quite what I’m going to be presenting.” Land’s intention—far from merely picking up that old, dusty behemoth and clearing its jacket—was instead to tear out the book’s essential pages and apply them directly. From principles, to institutions, to individuals, and finally to actions, maintaining operational consistency along this vertical spectrum is perhaps the most difficult element of applied ethics. Decisions made on the local level often fail to align with frameworks constructed at the cosmopolitan. Through his presentation, Land aimed to provide students with the means of navigating this inconstancy and bridging the chasm between theory and practice.

Ethics is constructed upon standards—“legal standards, social standards—but they have to be well-founded […] grounded on something that’s solid, and they prescribe what humans ought to do—in terms of rights, but also in terms of obligations,” Land explained. The “ongoing” process of ethics is “really a question of a continuous reflection and trying to make sure that our actions” actually meet the standards of the institutions that have established them.

But “the world we work in as humanitarians,” Land noted, “is often the least perfect of all worlds.” How one is able to implement absolute rules in an imperfect world becomes the core challenge of humanitarian ethics. It would appear that flexibility is paramount, and most students in the class seemed to agree. But flexibility carries with it its own challenges, namely, the extent to which such laws and standards become malleable. “If you agree with this, [then] where do you stop bending and disregarding the rules?” Land challenged the students.

The tension between upholding and bending standards exists at the core of moral decision-making. “Ethical dilemmas pervade our work,” iterated Land, and they often boil down to this very tension between adherence and adaptation. The former is a matter of duty, of the obligation to hold oneself accountable to standards and laws (not just legal, but social and moral). This notion, that “rules bind you to duty,” is the fundamental tenant of the deontological approach to ethics. “Deontological ethics at any level,” Land explained, “tends to emphasize ‘accountability’”; it focusses on the means of a given action.

The latter viewpoint of adaptation holds standards as imperfect, flexible guidelines and grants primacy to an action’s ends corresponds to a consequentialist approach. “If you take a consequentialist view, you tend to emphasize not accountability but ‘responsibility,’” noted Land, “because whatever the outcome is—whether you predict it or not, whether it is bound by rules or not—you have to be responsible for that outcome.” The distinction between these ethical approaches, however, is not always clear-cut, and the moral ambiguities presented by a given scenario in the field often forces humanitarian aid workers to adopt a middle approach. Balancing duties and consequences remains a fundamental challenge at each level of decision making.

The Principles

Atop the “ethical cascade” stands the humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The principle of humanity states that “the purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings” (OCHA). As Land bluntly declared, “if that principle is not accepted as the sole purpose within the organization, the individual, and the action, we don’t qualify as humanitarians”; it should be the principle most vertically adoptable along the ethical cascade. This seemingly obvious principle of humanitarian action, however, becomes difficult to qualify. Which life is one obligated to protect—which side—and what means should one go about doing so? Though the end of humanitarian action seems uniform, many points of contention lie between the prerogative to provide aid and the complex reality of relief efforts during situations of conflict.

Some may hold that the principles of humanitarian aid admit no ambiguity, that the “purpose” is uniform and its terms require no explication. The principle of neutrality, however, is anything but rudimentary. Can one maintain personal or professional neutrality in conflict zones? “I first used this slide in Beirut,” Land reflected. He was delivering the presentation to Syrian national staff at a time in which the UN was considering “pulling out completely” and leaving the local staff in charge. “I put this question up and there was just a stunned silence,” Land told the students. “Finally, one brave soul in the back said, ‘No. Of course we can’t,’ and everyone agreed.”

There’s an “enormous” cost to maintaining that professional neutrality, especially when local aid workers find themselves forced to assist neighboring aggressors —expressed in this not uncommon sentiment which Land iterated: “Why the hell are you taking aid to those people over there today, when they are shelling us tonight? Are you crazy?” Or as one young man once explained to Land: every time he sees his father he is told to “resign from that job, go pick up a gun, and go fight for the cause.” The principle of impartiality may dictate that the humanitarian works “on the side of the victim whichever side the victim is on,” but identifying the aggressor is sometimes a difficult designation to make.

The Organization

In the ‘Age of Liberal Humanitarianism’ following the crises of the early 1990’s, “the international community of humanitarians [began to question] the very essence of what it meant to be a humanitarian,” explained the professor. Three documents became the “core to the crystallization of much of this thinking”: The Humanitarian Charter, the Sphere Standards, and the Code of Conduct. These frameworks sought to reconstitute the humanitarian approach and to “recommit the international community to humanitarian values, largely as absolutes, as rules.” The three documents “all emphasized duty,” Land pointed out. They indicated a movement towards ‘accountability’ and an ethos that stood largely upon the core values of the deontologist. The “Humanitarian Imperative” was clearly defined: “The right to receive humanitarian assistance and to offer it is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries” (ICRC). The language, Land pointed out, was “very absolutist” and sought to establish clear “rules binding us to duty.”

The “moral shift towards this insistence of humanitarian aid and protection” reflected the emergence of a ‘rights-based approach’ to humanitarianism. Though this concept may not appear novel, on a cosmopolitan stage of legal and social development, the approach proved quite ambitious—and unprecedented. Hugo Slim, Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, maintained that the Sphere Standards reflected a clear revaluation of the humanitarian effort. For Slim, the standards represented “‘a really quantifiable way of expressing what this ethical humanitarian duty would look like in writing.’”

The Sphere Standards are not just “moral obligations”; rather, they introduce a “latrine-based” approach to ethics—that is, one which attempts to provide clear content, i.e., providing specific utilities, rather than bold rhetoric. That being said, the standards do also seek to ensure “not just survival, but a life of dignity,” and they aim to provide this through a clearly-explicated framework, one in which human needs are founded on a “legal basis”—not just a right to life, but a right to a dignified existence. “This is an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties,” Land reiterated.

The “latrine-based” approach became indicative not only of the international community’s shift to a more deontological framework, but also signified something much more telling: an attempt to quantify moral obligation and, in many ways, turn duty into law. As Slim noted, such efforts embodied an extraordinary attempt to specify rights and duties that was unprecedented in international law.

But despite the bold rhetoric and ambitious efforts of these proposed legal frameworks, many in the field found the reality of such pronouncements unrealistic. “The humanitarian pragmatists, the ethical consequentialists see the Humanitarian Imperative as being blind to the complexities of the operational context,” Land explained. “Contextualization has to be used to balance this duty-based approach.” The goal is “trying to limit, trying to predict, trying to rectify ‘unintended consequences,’” under the principle of ‘do no harm.’ Oftentimes contextualization is “forced onto projects rather than designed into them,” continued Land. This structural defect in the planning process becomes problematic, especially for the humanitarian first pressured to apply given standards and then thrown into environments in which such standards no longer prove feasible.

Critics of the strictly deontological approach suggest a method containing “professional value judgements and acceptance of the responsibility for” the outcomes—interpreting the standards on a situation-by-situation basis. These “can be written into a deontological account of the framework—manuals, guidelines, checklists—but it’s essentially a consequentialist philosophy,” Land concluded. This method, though difficult to quantify and inclusive of many variables, nevertheless, presents a more flexible guideline to acting in those “imperfect” environments of humanitarian action. “‘Accountability’ is nice for a bureaucrat,” Land noted: “ I know what I have to do; I’ve ticked all the boxesthat’s job done.” But the reality on the ground calls for flexibility; it calls for the capacity to adapt to local complexities, complications that global frameworks are often incapable of foreseeing.

The Individual

The basic structure dictating the standards and responsibilities of the individual is his or her organization’s Code of Conduct. “Almost all of the Code of Conduct stems from the unequal power relationship with the beneficiary,” Land explained. Understanding this inequality and appropriately adjusting one’s attitude becomes paramount in maintaining professionalism and impartiality. “It’s very hard in the Code of Conduct to legislate attitude,” noted Land, and yet this is precisely what the humanitarian must achieve. “If you think they’re all crooks, you’ll treat them all as crooks; if you think they’re all deserving people, you’ll treat them all as deserving people,” Land put bluntly.

Frustration, group closure, and the development of negative views and stereotypes are all factors that serve to “reduce our discipline in unequal power relationships.” One’s ability to maintain this discipline dictates the nature of one’s actions. “How we behave then in an unequal power relationship—recognizing all these risks—defines whether our conduct is ethical or unethical,” the professor concluded.

Dilemmas faced at the level of the individual appear the most clear cut—given that individuals adhere to a strict set of rules to which they are legally bound through their signature—and yet such scenarios often prove the most ambiguous due to variables difficult to address through the Code of Conduct alone. The dilemmas faced at this local level of decision-making challenge the consistency and applicability of ethical frameworks forged atop the “cascade.”

Despite the outlines of academic ethics—the deontological or consequentialist systems of thought—the humanitarian on the ground is often forced him or herself to play the role of the moral cartographer and trek forward without clear guidance from such broadly-constructed academic maps. It is here, on the ground, where the moral quandaries of humanitarian action unapologetically reveal themselves and illuminate the difficulties of translating theory into practice.

And perhaps the best way to understand such ethical complexity is not through the analysis of systems at all, but rather—as the humanitarian—through these very individual cases. To culminate the lecture, Land gave the students precisely this task. One such example incited much discussion among the students, and it is here, within this challenging dilemma, that the lecture concluded:

As a nurse working with an NGO in a small, remote region you are approached by a young pregnant woman (possibly due to rape). A member of a deeply conservative society, the woman fears for her life should the birth take place, but is unable—due to local laws—to abort the pregnancy. She asks you for a salary advance so she can go into the city for the procedure. Such illegal operations are incredibly dangerous due to the lack of sanitary conditions and proper medical equipment. You know a doctor in the town who you have worked with before and who operates under relatively sterile conditions. He is willing to perform the operation, but only on the condition that you also aid in two separate procedures—procedures that your agency has been working to convince the population to abandon: a relatively severe form of female genital mutilation.

What will you do?


Lecture given by Anthony Land, Ph.D., IIHA Senior Fellow, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “‘Holes in Time and Space’: The Psychosocial Implications of the Refugee Camp”

In 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians fled from their homes in the wake of Jewish military advances and the fear of repeated attacks following the Deir Yassin massacre. Some had left the region voluntarily when faced with the prospect of life under Israeli tutelage; others had faced explicit expulsion demands by Israeli authorities and simply had no choice. The diaspora is now referred to by Palestinians as the “Nakba” (“disaster” or “catastrophe” ). It has also been given the biblically ironic—and almost sardonic—label of the “Palestinian Exodus.” And much like the flight from Egypt, the prospect of return appears at first glance null—here, both in the figurative and legal sense. The Palestinian people thus exist in a kind of political abeyance: indefinite refugees awaiting unlikely repatriation.

For many outside observers, the story ends here. It ends with the deadlock of political negotiations and the mutual assurance of mortar exchange. But the narrative is much more complex. The shockwaves of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extend far beyond the initial quake of exodus and encroach on a space far beyond the physical landscape of the Middle East. The conflict is as much ideological as it is political.

Professor Diana Martin, Ph.D. of the University of Portsmouth maintains the Palestinian spatial reconstitution as encompassing not only geopolitical disputes between Palestinian and Israeli authorities, but also deep psychosocial violence—violence indicative of a very different kind of political subordination: the physical and ontological exclusion of a people from their society’s social and moral landscapes. And this exclusion is not some kind of historical anomaly. Tracing the footsteps of those initial Palestinian refugees takes the retrospective observer to a deeply complex—and unfortunately archetypal—moment of historical governance.

“My talk will not provide ready-made or one-size-fits-all solutions,” Martin prefaced. “I’m here to challenge the ways we think about refugees, refugee spaces, [and] citizens and people who are marginalized.”

Martin’s research into spatial exclusion lead her to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, one of the many physical reconstitutions of the Nakba’s displaced people. At first, the refugees found an accommodating ally in the Lebanese government—such hospitality reflected the government’s belief that the stay would be only temporary. But when it became clear that the spillover from its southern neighbor would not soon recede, the Lebanese government resolved to have it dammed. The camps were thus established. “The government and the people feared refugee naturalization and resettlement in Lebanon,” explained Martin, “and this is because of the particular sectarian character of the country, which holds several religious [denominations] and where political power is based on a power-sharing formula between the different sects.” The presence of the Palestinian refugees didn’t just represent a “threat to the delicate balance of religious communities”; it represented a threat to political stability.

Refusing to naturalize the Palestinians, the Lebanese government established fifteen refugee camps and imposed stern restrictions on the inhabitants—denying them the right to work, or access to basic services such as healthcare and education, as well as limiting the right of movement—all in an attempt “to prevent the integration and guarantee the separation from the Lebanese citizens.” The camps have changed since then (the number has been slightly reduced to twelve, Martin reminded the audience), but the initial alienating intentions remain quite apparent.

This forced seclusion begs a fundamental question: What kind of space is the refugee camp? “In the case of refugee camps it is often argued that they are established as temporary structures and homes to refugees until a solution is found,” iterated Martin. The durable solutions take the form of an often entangled triad: repatriation, settlement in the country of refuge, and resettlement in a third country. “Lebanon and other Arab states, including the refugees themselves, reject these last two options,” Martin explained. The refusal of neighboring states to accommodate the refugees compounded by the hardline stance of Palestinians themselves unfortunately leaves the most improbable option on the table: Israel’s granting of the “right to return”—“which to be honest, does not seem likely to happen in the near future,” conceded the professor.

The result of such inaction is that temporary refugee camps become lifelong settlements. As Martin noted, the camps “are becoming permanent features of [the] Lebanese—but also the middle eastern—rural, and more often urban, landscape.” What kind of space is the refugee camp? The ambivalence of nations and absence of political solutions seems to challenge the initial answer of temporary relocation.

The phenomena of permanency and exclusion, believes Martin, is significant and highly revelatory. “Every camp and every situation of displacement is historically, socially, and geographically situated.” But each is not an island. And it is here—in the historical thread such camps share—where the answer to camp space may lie. Population seclusion is paradigmatic, and one that inevitably forces us to reflect on a world of another time—on a camp of another kind.

“As a geographer, I’ve always been interested in issues of space —how space is created, managed, shaped, why it is the way it is,” Martin explained. “My interest in refugee spaces inevitably lead me to reflect on refugee camps: What kind of space is the refugee camp? What is it’s purpose? Why is it established? Who is responsible for it? And how does space affect the lives of its inhabitants?”

The answer that camps embody some kind of proverbial way station in the plight of the refugee proves quite unsatisfactory—and, in the case of Palestinian camps in Lebanon, quite misleading. Camps no longer seem to stand as spaces of impermanence or states of deliberation; they are something else altogether, something perhaps quite alarming. “Like other academics focussing on displacement—refugees and migration flows and state responses,” Martin told the audience, “I began looking at refugee camps through the lens of the so-called ‘space of exception.’”

The term originates in the work of Carl Schmitt but has been given contemporary life by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. “With this idea of the ‘exception’ [Agamben] basically explains how exclusion operates in society, and especially in the context of a nation-state system,” informed the professor. Agamben’s object of focus, however, is not the refugee camp; his focus is the concentration camp.

Martin explained Agamben’s thinking: “By reflecting on the political-juridical structure of the Nazi concentration camps and the practices of the Third Reich, Agamben shows how the notion of the camp is the key to understanding modern techniques of government. To Agamben, the camp is the space in which the normal juridical order is suspended, and, along with it, the rights of its inhabitants. But who are these inhabitants and why are such spaces created? He explains that the inhabitants of the camps are those who are considered a threat to the nation-state. So in Nazi Germany, for instance, the threat to the nation-state and society was mainly represented by the Jews, and also homosexuals, gypsies, and disabled people—all those who were considered a threat to the German race. [. . .] All those considered to be a threat needed to be separated from society and for this reason they were enclosed, controlled, or even eliminated. And this is precisely by virtue of the suspension of the law: there’s another kind of administration going on in the concentration camp. The camp becomes a space where everything becomes [permissible]. There are no rights; there’s just management of life. It is not law that applies there.”

In the context of the concentration camp, such analysis does not seem altogether that novel. Of course, in concentration camps particular members of a society were excluded, imprisoned, and exterminated; of course, in concentration camps a perverted sense of law reigned; of course, in concentration camps prisoners were stripped of human dignity and reduced to something less than ‘human’. Again, such analysis is found in almost every Holocaust account and fails to appear novel. But Agamben is not simply referring to concentration camps—he is referring to a “technique” of governance. The “space” created by the architects of the Holocaust represents more than an act of orchestrated violence. Outside of its context, the creation of such space indicates a method of control for the undesired, a method far from antiquated. As Martin explained, Agamben is not merely attempting to illustrate historical tendencies, but instead to force the reflection of their circumstances into the foyer of contemporary political analysis; “he urges us to recognize the return of the camp in our [own] society.”

This analysis is, of course, not without controversy. “He never explicitly said that to understand refugee camps we need to look at concentration camps,” conceded the professor. “Obviously such parallels are dangers.” But this was never Agamben’s intention. “What Agamben explains is that the political-juridical structure” of such camps has remained embedded in governing methodology. This is what’s meant by the ‘return of the camp’: the construction of a “space of exception.”

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who has spent much of his career studying the Holocaust also found such practices paradigmatic. He “defined the camps as ‘holes in time and space,’ because time is frozen along with its inhabitants’ lives, rights, and juridical status,” Martin explained. “They are suspended [. . .] but there are also holes in space because they are regulated under a different system, and they are [isolated] from society.” Much like Agamben, Bauman did not see the camp dynamic as some kind of isolated phenomena.

“The logic of the camp is part of our society,” submitted Martin. “Refugee camps and detention centers are administered separately from the rest of the territory; it is basically about creating a space where the normal rule of law does not apply. [. . .] spaces that are regulated according to the logic of emergency.” It is a phenomena particularly observable in refugee camps, detention centers where asylum seekers are kept, and even in the former “zones d’attente” in French airports. (It is also not a reach to extend this list to encompass prisons, rendition sites—notably Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib—and even police facilities). “Very often, these are spaces where human rights abuses occur,” noted the professor. The abuses occur in the camps’ spatial-temporal “holes.”

The implicit comparison with the Holocaust and spaces of engineered violence seems to offend common perceptions of refugee settlements. After all, these spaces are supposed to provide temporary relief. The thought originating with Agamben is rooted rather in the “logic” of such spatial construction. “Refugee camps are spaces that provide assistance, that help refugees survive until a solution is found,” Martin noted, “but they are also spaces to keep the refugee and the undesired far from society. [. . .] It is as if refugee camps and detention centers, in a way, work as purifying filters that keep the ‘foreigner’ far away.” These ‘spaces of exclusion’ become “bio-political’ tools to govern society,” and “spatial tools that make such differentiation [between citizen and refugee] visible.”

In Lebanon, the threat to the “logic of emergency” is that this distinction is becoming less and less clear. In Shatila, a Palestinian camp initially established ‘outside’ Beirut, roughly one-third of inhabitants are actually non-Palestinian. This includes arab and non-arab immigrants, as well as even some Lebanese people themselves. The reason accounting for such “inclusivity” is the unforeseen urban growth of the surrounding areas. Camps expanded vertically, from makeshift tents to pueblo-like structures—stacked one on top of the other. But they also expanded horizontally. “So while Shatila at the time of its establishment was quite isolated from the center of Beirut,” noted Martin, “it gradually began touching the city. The camp expanded and the periphery of Beirut began growing exponentially. [. . .] It seems that the boundaries are blurring.”

For those powers seeking to separate the Palestinian peoples from local citizens, the blurring of boundaries seems to represent an undoing of the internal structure of camp rationale. But there is another way of reading such expansion. Ironically, the Palestinians are not the only ones being forcibly coiled by such twisted emergency logic. The camps have also become home to Lebanese citizens coming from the countryside and other “neglected” parts of the state. So while it may appear as though the camp is expanding, its new-found reach has only managed to extend the space of exception. “In a way, Lebanon’s political and economic system created other kinds of outcasts, other kinds of people who were marginalized, even among its own citizens,” explained the professor.

“This kind of system produced what [Agamben] called “bare life,” which is a life that can be abandoned.” Martin continued: “Lebanon would then assist [not only] in the production of Palestinian bare life—those discriminated against and kept apart from society—but also the abandonment of certain citizens [of their own country] who lack protection and are socioeconomically marginalized—namely the poor.” The expansion of the camp space and the influx of inhabitants does more than blur the line between refugee and citizen; it constructs a new one, one whose contour merely extends the original boundary. The camp is no longer a reflection of race or nationality, but now also one of class. Far from representing a kind of inclusivity, the camps’ expansion signifies a new way of marginalizing an additional undesired population. The Lebanese “other” has grown.

The idea of “campscape,” Martin explained, “is an idea of fluidity.” The campscape is malleable, but only so long as its inhabitants remain the outcasts. Interestingly enough, even within the excluded, population divisions have arisen. “The fact that they are sharing the same conditions does not mean there are always good relations in the camp,” clarified the professor. “What I’m trying to highlight is the complexity of these spaces and experiences.” For the Palestinian refugees, the presence of foreigners can be quite threatening. The fear of outside intrusion has lead “the camp itself [to] create its own marginalized within the marginalized.”

Why has this secondary ring of seclusion arisen? Martin believes the main concern of the camp’s original inhabitants remains the fear of “losing the Palestinian traditions or identity.” The camp has, in a way, become a Palestine away from Palestine. The professor recounted a conversation with a Palestinian who had been living outside Shatila: “‘Maybe before entering this camp I did not know what Palestine is […] only when I entered this camp I knew what Palestine meant exactly […] the happiest thing in my life was to move to the camp. Here life is very hard […] but it’s very beautiful because it’s like one family.’” The camp is a desirable space, for it stitches together an ethnic identity whose very fabric could never be whole otherwise.

The importance of maintaining such wholeness also serves a starkly political purpose. Refugee camps are “highly contested,” Martin explained. “Israel would like these refugee camps to be dismantled,” because the camps, in many ways, “become symbolic of that [original] displacement—of the rights that have never been implemented, the right to return.” The camps are more than embodiments of identity; they are the vestiges of the exile act, a kind of Alamo where the refugees make their political last stand. If the camps are dismantled or no longer recognized as “camps,” than the refugees lose international attention and the right of return may be suspended indefinitely. This may help to explain the camp inhabitants’ aversion to allowing non-Palestinians to reside alongside them: admittance means the camp ceases to be both “Palestinian” and also a “camp.” And no “camp” means no displacement; no displacement means no return.

The resistance to dismantlement is simultaneously a resistance to a kind of permanency. Dismantlement spells the end of the potential for the Palestinian return, but so too does the resultant assimilation—assuming such assimilation allows the refugee to enter and remain a part of Lebanon’s social order (it may well be that permanency anywhere is a conceptual stretch). “In the very beginning [of the camps] [the refugees] just wanted to stay in tents themselves,” noted Martin, “because if they started building—building with solid material—it would have given them an idea of permanence: we’re going to stay here forever.” The haphazardly-constructed verticalization of the camps are signs of this resistance to residential permanency.

The twin threats of permanence and dismantlement, however, seem to endow the Palestinian refugee with a set of paradoxical motivations. On one hand the refugee very much desires recognition—and naturalization into the Lebanese social and political order would release him from this “space of exception”; it would grant him professional and economic opportunities he currently lacks. But on the other hand, such assimilation would indicate a kind of permanency—the return to Palestine as no longer a possibility. The “holes in time and space” in which the refugees find themselves may be exclusionary, but they are also for some—in a fundamentally complex and paradoxical way—desirable (or, at least, more so than the alternative). Some would rather inhabit these spaces; some would rather occupy the “exception.”

“Why do we still have refugee camps?” asked Martin. “[One reason is that] refugees themselves want to be in refugee camps. Not all of them, obviously—many Palestinians live outside the camps. But refugee camps are still highly symbolic of the displacement of 1948. The fact that they’re still there means that there’s still the hope of return to their lands.” The camps’ symbolic value of return thus maintains their physical existence.

But the paradigm of refugee camps is not as prevalent as media imagery may lead one believe. “Interestingly, according to UNHCR—and contrary to common belief . . . refugee populations [are] more dispersed,” informed the professor. Roughly one in three refugees worldwide lives in a camp. Most have been—or are desperately trying—to assimilate into urban landscapes. “It means that life in the camp is really not the norm,” Martin concluded.

The shifting model of refugee spaces forces a challenging question onto the humanitarian and the international community: “Where are refugee spaces and what are the implications if they’re not inside the refugee camp?” Despite their alienating form, the refugee camp allows for accessibility. It isolates the refugee, but it does so with the intention—at least from the humanitarian point of view—of coordinating relief efforts by facilitating the identification, targeting, and access of vulnerable individuals. But “with the absence of refugee camps,” asked Martin, “is there any distinction that we can draw between the refugee, the homeless, and the urban poor?”

With naturalization, the refugee becomes both more integrated into local spaces and more isolated from international relief efforts; the distinction between the refugee and the locally marginalized seems to evaporate. Who do you then assist? It seems “paradoxical,” Martin noted, to see the refugee position as a “privileged” one in the context of the surrounding urban area, but this is pricelessly the outcome. If the refugee is no different from the locally marginalized, why should one receive aid and the other not? The absence of any distinguishable refugee space seems to radically undermine the ethics of humanitarian action; it has the potential to levy the critique of partiality on the aid worker who prioritizes the refugee over the urban poor.

But leaving relief efforts in the hands of local governments is also problematic. The “space of exception” receives this label for a reason; it seems tautological to say its inhabitants are ignored. “When Agamben explained ‘exception,’ Martin noted “he talks about ‘inclusive exclusion,’ which means that people are excluded, but included in the system by virtue of [this] exclusion.” The camp’s inhabitants are not of course “ignored” absolutely. Their presence is recognized; the marginalized receive a “place” in society. But this place is equivalent to a kind of caste, and this caste is one that allows its members to be overlooked and treated as “bare life”—their existence recognized, but their humanity ignored. Exclusion continues, even after life in the camp concludes.

The complexity of refugee space indicates an unfortunate damned-if-you-do,-damned-if-you- don’t dilemma when it comes to the question of naturalization. Without the “right to return,” the refugee remains cast between two equally-problematic courses of action. It would seem as though from the very moment the “exodus” began, the Palestinians were condemned to this permanent state of “otherness”—on his their footsteps from the Holy Land, exclusion followed with them.


Lecture given by Professor Diana Martin, Ph.D. of the University of Portsmouth, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “Silencing the Sirens: Sovereignty and the Challenges to Implementing International Law”

On June 4th, Elisabeth Wickeri, J.D., Executive Director of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, helmed a two-part lecture on human rights and international humanitarian law for the 45th International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance class. The discussion sought to provide the students with a comprehensive survey of the various legal frameworks under which many aid professionals operate in the field, isolating central themes and tensions within the international legal system and addressing the realities of implementation and enforcement. Of particular importance to this topic is the complication that state sovereignty poses to treaty adherence—the balancing act between national interests and international conventions; the subsequent challenge of state reservations to international conventions; and the presence of “non-state” actors in theaters of conflict. Throughout the lecture, many students expressed concern over the efficacy of international law and voiced clear frustration over the apparent lack of its local enforcement.

Wickeri began her lecture by considering the development and evolution of the concept of human rights. Temporarily stripping the concept of its modern legal signification, Wickeri first considered human rights not as a law, but as a feeling—a feeling produced by an image or an encounter, a feeling that something is wrong, that “something is being violated.” It wouldn’t be until the revolutionary period of the late 18th century and the developments in the later half of the Enlightenment that “individual rights” emerge as a “legally-articulable” matter, Wickeri explained.

“The movement towards the modern articulation of human rights” (cosmopolitan-oriented and providing greater inclusivity than previous Enlightenment models) quickens in the 20th century, domestically, as a result of developments in the United States’ labour and women’s rights movements and, internationally, in the proceedings following the Second World War. The UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, subsequent treaties, declarations by the international community (not legally binding), and the establishment of international courts all demonstrate this movement towards a more definite international legal structure.

Human rights law contains five key components: Universality, equality and non-discrimination, indivisibility, inalienability, and obligation instituted by and attached to the laws. As Wickeri described, these components are “universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions by the government and other actors that interfere with freedom and dignity.” But human rights and human rights law are not the same. “The laws are that which protect my rights,” Wickeri explained; “the human rights laws are that which set those basic standards, and human rights laws are that which human rights activists, human rights lawyers, and human rights defenders are trying to change in many circumstances.” Human rights law, for instance, did not protect LGBT individuals until very recently, a fact that demonstrates the sometimes limited extent of the law’s inclusivity. The rights of these individuals, on account of their being human, had never been absent; the law had simply yet to be adapted. The upshot of such legal adaptation is that human rights law stands as an uncompleted project.

“International law, (on the other hand), exists as it did in 1945 (with certain changes and amendments),” explained Wickeri. This persistence creates challenges. “The world has changed—the international community has changed,” Wickeri began. Think of the United Nations as a man looking to buy a suit, she advised the students. In the years of its youth—the period following the Second World War—the UN was a slim man and chose the suit—the framework for international law—most appropriate at that time. This was an era when conflict involved interactions among clearly defined parties across clearly defined borders. Complications to the global geopolitical landscape, such as the emergence of non-state entities (companies and corporations, separatists, and terrorist factions) could not have been foreseeable.

The result is that while the field of conflict expanded and grew in complexity, the legal structures remained relatively the same; the young man is now old—and fat—and his suit no longer fits. “We can’t do much to change that suit,” conceded Wickeri, and yet the international environment seems to require the service of a tailor.

One of the challenges is that these initial international laws were first conceived to deal with states. “The notion of sovereignty is still what underpins international law today,” noted Wickeri, and what creates perhaps the most significant barrier to the implementation and enforcement of those laws. States possess the right to exclude or modify certain provisions to international treaties—the so-called ‘optional protocols’ to which states may hold legal ‘reservation.’ So although particular treaties may be ratified, certain components of such treaties may be amended or even excluded.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a treaty to which 194 countries and every member state of the UN is party, except the United States and Somalia who have refused to ratify it altogether. This is a fact so baffling and seemingly nonsensical that a student, upon hearing professor Wickeri explain it, simply blurted out, “Why?” The difficulty comes in the United States’ aversion to international law of any variety, its unwillingness to subjugate domestic law to any foreign structure and its “fears about having an international body regulating or legislating what (it) does.” However, Wickeri was quick to point out that the actual process by which the US would have to heed international authority—submitting reports to appointed international committees and so on—fails to “rise to the level of the fears” that certain members of Congress may have instigated.

The ability to hold legal reservation—to exclude or modify certain provisions of international treaties—creates problems, and it’s not just the US that tends to default to its own sovereignty and the rules explicated under its own domestic legal structure. “It’s a truly troubling facet of human rights law that countries do try to get out of their obligations,” Wickeri admitted. Countries that have or are continually “trying to define themselves out of torture” is a notable example of the reprehensibility of such international legal aversion—one of which the US is particularly guilty. “We want to bind ourselves [to these laws],” Wickeri clarified. We want these laws to be difficult to amend. The siren’s song to abandon the course set by international law is a tantalizing call, but the law requires universality. “This is the sail that we have bound ourselves to,” alluded Wickeri, “and the United States and other countries are desperately trying to get the sailors to pull the wool out of their ears.” This cannot happen.

Why does the international community even grant states the power of reservation? Reservation is without doubt a “potential limitation of the international legal standard”—a standard that should supersede domestic laws. But if this mechanism of reservation was not in place, it would prove difficult to even bring states to the negotiation table, let alone incentivize them to ratify conventions. In many ways, reservation is needed.

If the students’ audible frustration to such a reality was any indication, however, it would seem the law’s limitations prove ‘unsatisfying’—to say the least. Many of the students’ questions concerned enforceability, not legal policy. This focus is understandable. If anyone in the world of international relations is privy to the lapses of human rights laws, it is the humanitarian aid workers on the ground—the very students sitting in the classroom. Their concern for implementation reflects the position they occupy as aid workers in conflict zones; it is a concern they feel is either not adequately addressed or simply ignored by those enacting legal frameworks and driving international policy.

Wickeri shared the students’ frustration. The conventions are not ideal and the failures and limitations of enforcement may be frustrating, but the conventions seek to “protect all the areas we want protected.” That answer is of course unsatisfying, conceded Wickeri, but “international law is not the only tool. [ . . . ] I think that the best advances forward are made when organizations, advocates, and other groups use these [domestic and international] mechanisms in conjunction with each other.” How to best balance the international and domestic mechanisms becomes perhaps the golden question of international law, and the failure of implementing the former should not force states into complete abandonment and default to the latter.

“Domestic violence laws are a great corollary to international law,” Wickeri proposed, “where, of course we want [laws], of course we pursue them vigorously and we want to strengthen them and the mechanism to enforce them, but domestic violence is one of the hardest things to actually prosecute. Does that mean we give up those laws and ignore them and say ‘well, these laws are useless’? Of course not. But it also means that they are not the only answer; there are things like public education campaigns and media outcry and advocacy that always have to go with any enforceability standard.” The same applies for international law.

And it’s not just in human rights law that state sovereignty challenges and complicates international imperatives. International humanitarian law, the branch of international law that applies to armed conflict, faces similar obstacles. Rather than the default to state sovereignty, it is instead in the absence of recognized sovereignty where international humanitarian law faces a case of the suit being too small to fit—the initial legal considerations no longer appropriate for contemporary warfare. Non-state actors like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not recognized as sovereign entities and are thus not party to international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. “This is a huge problem with the regulation of warfare,” Wickeri explained. “They are only bound [to the Geneva Conventions] in so far as they are dealing with each other in the hostilities. If country A is a party to the Geneva Conventions and country B is not party to the Conventions, unless country B agrees to abide by the provision of the Conventions, party A doesn’t have to either.”

“In the name of human rights,” noted Wickeri, countries like the United States have been, nonetheless, pressured to abide by the Conventions regardless of whether non-state actors (like the Taliban) are actually party to them. “There are difficulties in ensuring that this is actually done, principally because of sovereignty,” she reiterated. A state, already hesitant to bind itself to international law, will be certainly less apt to do so when the other party is subject to no restrictions itself.

Geoffrey S. Corn, the former senior law of war expert for the Army’s Office of the Judge Advocate General, details this reality in a New York Times article on the actions of Seal Team 6 in Afghanistan and the difficulty in prosecuting the unit’s potential war crimes (civilian killings in this instance). Corn insists that “emphasizing these lines and rules becomes even more important when you’re fighting a lawless, remorseless enemy. That is when the instinct for revenge is going to be strong. And war is not about revenge.” It may be one thing for a state to make reservations to international conventions before ratifying, but it is quite another to exempt oneself from legal responsibility altogether—a case in which the suit being too small for an old man becomes one of an emperor without any clothes at all.

“Everything about human rights and humanitarian law is about piercing sovereignty, limiting sovereignty, controlling or binding sovereignty in some way,” Wickeri concluded. This understanding becomes especially important in non-international conflict where states feel little incentive to abide by international rules: “Why should I limit what I can do within my own territorial ground when no one else is involved? I ought to be able to try and control conflict in whatever way I chose to, rather than prescribing to some international principle.” This very sentiment, Wickeri noted, is “the same reason why human rights law is [also] difficult to implement.”

Human rights law “can be a powerful tool, but in times of conflict it’s quite weak.” Unfortunately, as the students very well know, it is precisely in times of conflict when international law is most requisite, and when ideals and rights-based philosophical frameworks matter very little unless they can be implemented and enforced.


Lecture given by Elisabeth Wickeri, J.D., Executive Director of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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