Webster Humanitarian Conference under way in Geneva

| January 27, 2011
David Carl Wilson speaks at the Humanitarian Conference

College of Arts & Sciences Dean David Carl Wilson at the International Humanitarian Conference in Geneva

Webster University Geneva’s annual International Humanitarian Conference is underway this Jan. 27 and 28. It’s the 16th conference of its kind held by the International Relations Department in Geneva. This year’s theme is “humanitarian space,” focusing on the challenges faced in the field of humanitarian work.

On-going notes and pictures from the conference can be found at the 16th Humanitarian Conference page on the Webster Geneva website.

Since 1995, this conference has been organized in close consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The 2011 edition will also be held under the auspices of the Government of the State of Geneva.

Each year, the attendance of the conference has grown, to reach 42 speakers and exceed 400 visitors in 2010.

The conference aims to bring together practitioners and scholars, representatives and diplomats, and address today and tomorrow’s challenges.

Humanitarian Space

Humanitarian space can be defined as the establishment of an environment in which humanitarian agencies can operate independently of external political and other agendas. Unfortunately, this freedom is in tremendous jeopardy today. Humanitarian actors agree that humanitarian space is shrinking, in part due to conflicts, aid worker safety issues, as well as political agendas and interests.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian (OCHA) affairs stresses that ensuring the right of a population to receive humanitarian aid is of utmost importance, and should not be contingent on political or other alliances. However, the responsibility for providing protection and assistance to those affected by conflict and disaster usually lies with national governments. But in states where a government might be party to an armed conflict, or is unable to exercise its full sovereignty, the ability for humanitarian workers to operate may be severely diminished.

The relationship between humanitarian workers and government agencies can be quite blurry, as many governments and military regimes of nations in crisis use humanitarian workers as a means to exercise control over local populations.

In such situations, the physical safety of humanitarian workers is often threatened, which lessens their ability to carry out humanitarian work where it is the most needed. The issue of how to safeguard the humanitarian space is one that has been reviewed by numerous aid agencies, including the UNHCR, which has studied key policy issues including political agendas, security management, engagement with non-state actors, and interagency cooperation.

Four Themes of 16th Annual Humanitarian Conference

The program of the Conference will be organized around four major themes:

1. Aid worker security (expatriates and local workers)
2. The dynamic between aid workers and military actors in humanitarian space: NATO’s “Integrated approach” and the confusion between COIN, stabilization, reconstruction and development
3. Interagency relations in humanitarian space, the “cluster” system, IGO/NGO relations
4. The blurring of humanitarian and public agendas

The two-day conference is closely linked with graduate and undergraduate courses in the MA/BA curriculum; it gives the students practical experience and motivation, to prepare them for a life as a global citizen and a career in the field of humanitarian action or foreign policy.

The conference is the flagship of Webster University Geneva; it is a strong part of its identity and its visibility within the academic, as well as the diplomatic and international business communities in Geneva.

With the creation of an Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies in St Louis, the department aims to capitalize on the resources available in Geneva to contribute scientifically.

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