Webster University Geneva’s Department of International Relations, together with the Webster Humanitarian Association (WHA), held its 24th International Humanitarian and Security Conference (IHSC) on March 7-8, 2019. The conference was organized in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As in the past, it benefited from the high patronage of the Government of the Republic and Canton of Geneva.
Over 150 people attended the public conference led by Dr. Oreste Foppiani, Head of Webster’s Department of International Relations and chair of the IHSC’s scientific committee, and Ms. Martina Castiglioni, President of the WHA. The participants included three keynote speakers and twenty-one panelists. Webster University student volunteers — notably those affiliated with the WHA — played a key role in the preparation and execution of the conference. As on previous occasions, it was held at the Geneva International Conference Center in the United Nations district of Calvin’s city.
Ms. Elisabetta Trenta, Italy’s Minister of Defense, opened the conference via Skype highlighting the importance of the Geneva Conventions for her country as well as the respect of human rights wherever the Italian Armed Forces are called to operate around the world.
This year’s conference, “Rebalancing International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Human Rights: The Significance of the 1949 Geneva Conventions Seventy Years On,” included a keynote address by Dr. Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President of the ICRC and Professor of Development Economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, which was particularly gripping and motivating. Carbonnier’s powerful address, “The Geneva Conventions at 70. More than a Successful Legacy: A Call for Action,” focused on the fact that in spite of significant progress and substantial achievements to date, in numerous conflicts the Conventions are not being respected, atrocities are being committed, and the rights of combatants and civilians are disregarded. In addition, new technologies such as autonomous weapons are emerging and are having uncertain effects on human dignity.
The subsequent panels during the two-day conference focused on six specific themes, namely: 1) POWs, Internees, Captured Personnel and Detention Facilities; 2) The Protection of Civilians in Occupied Territories; 3) The Changing Character of Warfare; 4) The Protection of Medical Personnel and War Correspondents; 5) Child Soldiers; and 6) The Increased Relevance of Non-State Actors in Armed Conflicts.
In Panel 1, Mr. Jonathan Cuénoud spoke about the challenges in the implementation of IHL and Mr. David Bramlette about the U.S. foreign policy failures related to indefinite detention without trial (e.g., the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons). In Panel 2, although Palestine was the core topic, Dr. Athar Sultan-Khan shed light on the historical and political prospective of the Western Sahara refugee situation and UNHCR’s role, while Dr. Younis Al Khatib, a medical doctor and President of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, spoke about IHL in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ms. Lama Jbarah discussed the interaction between IHL and IHRL in relation to the protection of Palestinian civilians, and Mr. Michael Schoiswohl, the Deputy Director of UNRWA, focused on IHL and the situation of Palestine refugees in conflict and occupation.
Panel 3, chaired by Col. Francesco Chiaravalloti, Italian Carabinieri liaison officer to the French Gendarmerie Nationale in Paris, benefited from presentations by Col. Alexandre Vautravers on autonomous weapons and IHL, Dr. Anja Kaspersen on the mitigation of the weaponization of new technologies, and Mr. Guillaume Fournier on the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. In Panel 4, Dr. Duncan McLean spoke about the protection of medical personnel in conflict situations, while Mr. Gaëtan Vannay, Mr. Edward Girardet and Ms. Gunilla von Hall discussed various aspects of the current challenges, difficulties and dangers of working as a journalist in war zones.
The second day of the conference got off to a solid start with two very illuminating keynote addresses. Professor Otto Hieronymi, the founder of the IHSC, talked about the relevance and importance of the Geneva Conventions in the 21st century. Archbishop Santo Marcianò, the Chaplain-General of the Italian Armed Forces, talked about the role of military chaplains in the past, present and future. The first panel, on Friday morning, dealt with the highly controversial and emotive issue of child soldiers. Mr. Pascal Bongard of the Geneva Call explained the activities of his non-governmental organization in trying to discourage armed groups from recruiting child soldiers, while Dr. Amanda Melville of the UNHCR and Bettina Junker of the UNICEF discussed the steps taken by their respective agencies to tackle this problem. Professor Karl Hanson of the University of Geneva highlighted the complexity and difficulty of dealing with the problem, particularly when it comes to demobilization of child soldiers and reintegrating them into civilian society.
The final panel of the conference dealt with non-state actors in armed conflicts; a problem which has become more daunting since the end of the Cold War with the proliferation of non-state actors as a result of numerous instances of state failure and the eruption of intra-state violence. Professor Andrew Clapham of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Ms. Jelena Plamenac of the non-governmental organization Diakonia, and Cdr. Gino Lanzara of the Italian Navy, analyzed different dimensions of this problematic issue in the contemporary world. Finally, yet importantly, Mr. David Dela Pena gave an informative talk about misinformation and fake news in social media, and their impact on domestic and international politics.
Overall, the conference was a resounding success. The full conference agenda (PDF) remains available online, and more photographs can be seen on the Webster University Geneva Facebook Page. The 25th edition of the conference will be held on March 19-20, 2020.
Photo credits: Oliver O’Hanlon, Saba Ghezili.