Symposium – Haven: Intervening for Human Security in the Mediterranean Crisis, NUI Galway October 2016

Just back from a superb symposium at NUI Galway examining human security and migration in the Mediterranean as part of the Haven Project, an Irish Research Council-funded project led by Dr. John Morrissey. The event was a innovative mix of practitioners and academics, exploring the political, legal and ethical dimensions of the current flows of migration in southern Europe. Discussion focused on the geopolitical histories that led to the current migrant flows, coupled with a concern for the nature of military and legal responses to human displacement. The talks were passionate and political, underscoring the urgency of a response to this unfolding human crisis as thousands die attempting to cross to Europe. There were excellent presentations from (among others) Prof. Gerry Kearns on the geopolitics of solidarity (or otherwise) that have shaped the nature of the political response to the crisis, with a particular focus on the use of direct provision for asylum seekers in Ireland; Lt Mike Brunicardi from the Irish Navy gave an arresting view of the exercises carried out to rescue migrants who come to harm in the Mediterranean, a valuable insight into the split-second decision making required when approached a sinking vessel with 400 people in the water concurrently requiring immediate assistance; and Vicky Donnelly and Annie Asgard gave vital accounts of the role of education in assisting both migrant and wider populations in building solidarity and concern for others. I gave a talk on the localizing of international law, to think about the ways in which international law has sought to fix space and ethnic identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, work that sought to explore the geopolitical histories of porous borders and the limits to forms of legal redress.

The symposium’s outstanding plenary was provided by Prof. Derek Gregory, a valuable chance to hear how his work has developed since the Tanner Lectures back in January. In his introductory remarks Gregory talked of his last twelve years, spent, in his own words “looking at how people kill each other” with a particular focus on the nature and consequences of aerial warfare. He outlined how he had set himself the task of shifting his focus, from the geographies of killing to geographies of curing, focusing on the precarious nature of casualty care and military hospitals. But this assumed distinction (‘death’ versus ‘cure’) soon became entwined, as the history of military cure is interspersed with a more violent geography: the targeting of hospitals and treatment centres during conflict.

The talk was woven around three examples of violence against medical facilities: the bombing of an UK Army hospital in Étaples in May 1918; the US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières Trauma Centre in Kunduz in October 2015 and the bombing of various medical facilities during the conflict in Syria. Across these examples Gregory began to sketch a series of grim conclusions: the targeting of medical facilities has been  used as a “casualty multiplier” where injuring someone who could heal ensures more death and suffering; the use of law to make the practice of healing an illicit activity, complete with improvised hospitals built in covert locations, and the use of hospital bombing as a means of depleting morale to the point of despair. The talk provided glimpses of where this research was heading: meticulous accounts of covert supply chains of medical equipment, mirroring the legal cases made in war crimes courts that document the seemingly banal stockpiling of military equipment to denote the planning of violence. But also towards sketching an inverted social world where civilians beg for hospitals to be relocated away from their homes such is the potential target for violence. The spaces of medical attention become diffuse, temporary and improvised in an era of spectacular violence against medical professionals. As MSF suggest “war without limits leads to a battlefield without doctors”.

From a law and space perspective the talk was a fascinating provocation: what then for war crime in an era where bombing hospitals becomes normalised? Gregory – accurately, in my view, and extending the analysis in his essay Vanishing Points – challenged the Agamben view of the space of exception as ‘the camp’ where law is suspended by the sovereign, to make the case instead that it is the battlefield that most accurately captures a space of exception: a site where people are exposed to death as killing becomes lawful. The talk demonstrated how strikes on hospitals draw these facilities – almost unfathomably – into this state of exception. Chillingly Gregory reminded us of the case precedence at the heart of international law: that it develops through its breaches. As hospital attacks are left – largely – unpunished, so such violence becomes incorporated into the arts of war.

Alex Jeffrey

November, 2016

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