American University of Beirut

Changing Ecologies of War and Humanitarianism: Reflecting on MSF’s 40 years of working in conflict

Two-day conference organized by Médecins Sans Frontières, AUB’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs

Date: May 4 - 5, 2016

MSF’s first project responding to conflict was inaugurated in Beirut in 1976. Since then, the organization has worked in major conflict zones across the world and has grown in size to navigate the medical, political and social realities of providing healthcare during war. While the demand for humanitarian aid grows, MSF’s ability to work in conflict zones faces compounding obstacles and challenges.
In recent decades, MSF has been at the forefront of responding to protracted conflicts and humanitarian crises in the Middle East and North Africa. Unfortunately, many of these projects have been forced to close down due to the changing political realities and conditions of war in certain locations. In 2013, MSF announced the closure of all its programs in Somalia because of increasing attacks on its staff. In 2014, the growing insecurity in post-Kaddafi Libya forced MSF to withdraw from the country. In Syria, following the kidnapping of five staff members in January 2014, the organisation suspended most of its activities in opposition held areas. At the same time, access has been systematically denied in government-controlled parts of the country.
In 2015, MSF faced the biggest loss of life in a single airstrike when the U.S. attacked and destroyed one of the most important and largest trauma hospitals in Afghanistan. Subsequent attacks on MSF-run and supported health facilities in Syria and Yemen have further highlighted the limits of international humanitarian law in preventing such attacks given the changing nature of war. While the challenges facing MSF pale in comparison to the reality of life in war for people trapped in brutal conflict, the ability of MSF to work, or lack thereof, is often an indicator of the broader processes entailed in the provision of assistance amid the disregard for civilian life and infrastructure in conflict zones around the world.
A two-day conference, to be held jointly between AUB and MSF, will critically examine some of the contemporary challenges to humanitarian action across different war geographies within and beyond the Middle East. The event will bring together researchers, academics, and practitioners working in and on the humanitarian sector to reflect on the changing conditions of warfare and humanitarian aid in light of the militarization of healthcare – its targeting and implication in war - massive population movements, and the rapid regionalization of health delivery in contemporary conflicts. This event is part of series of activities in Beirut marking 40-years of MSF working in conflict and the anniversary of 150 years since the AUB’s creation. The event is co-organised by MSF, the War and Global Health Working Group at the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Issam Fares Institute.

Outline of the event

This event will provide a platform for academics and practitioners to reflect on the changing dynamics of contemporary war and challenges facing the provision of healthcare in conflict. The event will take place over 2 days and will include a series of panel discussions and keynote addresses. Participants will be invited to engage in an active and lively discussion on the key themes and draw on lessons learnt that shape the future of research on healthcare under conflict and the practice of humanitarian aid.

The panels are organized around four main themes:

  • The changing histories and landscapes of humanitarian aid
  • The targeting and implication of medicine in warfare
  • Responding to populations on the move
  • Emerging global health trends in contemporary conflict

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