Winter School Reflections

When the Lebanese Ambassador to France gave a shockingly real speech emblematic of a diplomat defending state-interests during Winter School, it marked a rupture from the largely unanimous perspectives of humanitarian organisations which stood for different causes. For once in the entire week, refugees were not presented as victims, but as villains. Innocent citizens trapped in civil war became exploiters of the situation, displaced individuals across the Syrian-Lebanese border became a homogenous group distorting the sectarian divide, the UNHCR’s efforts in promoting education became creating unnecessary competition with local children in schools. It is not my place to judge which perspective is right, for both sides are justified and perhaps necessary given their respective fields of work. However, the clash of interests and the nature of discourse today highlights two important points: firstly, the prospect of the refugee crisis as an awakening call for a renaissance of the international world order, away from inter-state system; secondly, the rebirth of the dominant discourse— now fuelled by losers— perpetuates conflicts.

I. The renaissance of the international world order?

The ambassador’s emphatic speech certainly elucidated the fact that representing a state necessitates advancing its priorities. Consequently, it also means sacrificing humanitarian needs (deaths outside closed borders for instance) if that is in conflict with achieving priorities of the state. Paradoxically, Lebanon, being an exception rather than the norm, has magnanimously met the former but sacrificed the latter. More generally speaking, respecting fundamental human rights in the context of the refugee crisis is difficult even for the most moral governments simply because we function in the framework of the inter-state system where sovereignty is the modus operandi. Any state that prioritises transboundary humanitarian needs will likely see the loss of sovereignty. For instance, it loses supreme control over the territory within its borders due to less controllable cross-border flows; its destiny is no longer only subject to the influence of its government and people; it is vulnerable to interference (from immediate impacts of altered demographics to sustained pressures from the international community) and loses autonomy.

At this juncture we have two opposing options. We can allow the refugee crisis to reinforce the workings of the inter-state system, to remind us of how precious the legacy of the Westphalian treaty of 1648 is, to cherish our shared concept of sovereignty. Or we could realise that this ironically divides us, we could see the refugee crisis as a situation of such great magnitude that it can be a turning point of the world order, we could see the 6.3 internally displaced and 5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries as a wake-up call to let go of the jealously-guarded notion of sovereignty and to embrace shared humanity, we could radically re-assess our international order and what it means to be a global citizen in a global age.

1648 came after 30 years of war, the scale of damage before change can come today remains to be seen.

II. A rebirth of the dominant discourse— one fuelled by the losers

Interestingly, questions that followed the speech largely centred around positive impacts of the influx of refugees. Without a doubt, many individuals on campus are pro-humanitarian and even pro-open borders. This in itself is noble. However, it becomes problematic when we assume that we, by standing by victims of oppression and discrimination are challenging the dominant discourse; that we are upholding justice for the vulnerable.

In fact, we are but part of creating the dominant narrative; we have tilted the balance without recognising so and are quick to proclaim that the governments are aggressors, oppressors, violators. We have, in other words, empowered losers (as a group, not as individuals) to become tomorrow’s headlines, but continue to perpetuate their status as victims.

This is reinforced by the media— hardly anything can be more effective than reporting on the shocking picture of Alan Kurdi alongside politicians promoting anti-refugee sentiments, or the 15 Syrians that froze to death alongside closed borders (whether or not the two are causal). The strong juxtaposition gains pity for the former and condemnation for the latter; the white and the black; the false dichotomy that continues to move in tandem. In the end, we miss out the main point of both sides of the story— be it the root causes of displacement or the interests of states, perpetuating a cycle of crisis without any common ground, because we have already told ourselves that there is no grey area; no in between; no possibility of compromise.

The inherent limitation of humanitarian aid is that they focus on the after effect. This is important, but can hardly be sustainable. Throughout the whole of Winter School we were briefed about the causes then an in-depth description of on-the-ground work of relief workers. While attempts are made to connect aid to the very roots of displacement, the truth is humanitarian organisations stand powerless in the face of larger geopolitical conflicts. To think of ways to provide aid to refugees is admirable, but to stop the outflow of people is better still— this we should not forget.

by Sara Loo

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