Workshop | The End of Humanitarian Governance as We Know It? – School of Social and Political Sciences Workshop | The End of Humanitarian Governance as We Know It? – School of Social and Political Sciences

Workshop | The End of Humanitarian Governance as We Know It?

SSPS Governance Research Theme event: The End of Humanitarian Governance as We Know It?

16 March 2022, 10am – 7.30pm (AEST) via Zoom

Tune in to any of the agenda segments, or join us for the full day!

Register to receive Zoom details.

This workshop is funded by SSPS strategic research themes.

There are many signs that the global governance of humanity, which includes humanitarian intervention, peace and state building, and refugee protection, is reaching a crisis point. Post-Cold War humanitarian governance was a world-making project. It enlisted multiple forces and motives to fashion a liberalised world order premised on the alleviation of suffering, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and the protection of life. It could be argued that global humanitarian governance achieved little success. It neither succeeded in alleviating suffering nor in establishing a global normative authority or building viable states.

The workshop ‘The End of Humanitarian Governance as We Know It?’ aims to conduct a preliminary reappraisal of the global governance of humanity in the wake of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars in order to reconsider the world that this form of governance sought to produce, the political purposes it served, the techniques it used, and the subjects it implicated. In particular, the workshop explores the transformative effects of the post-September 11 conjuncture, in which the boundaries between needs, rights and security concerns were blurred. In the past two decades, each of these terms intruded into the other forming overlapping fields of practices that acquired a distinctive governmental, regulatory, and constitutive presence.

The workshop will consider a series of questions:

  • Did the recent statement by President Joe Biden that ‘the idea that we’re able to deal with rights of women around the world by military forces is not rational’ mark a closure of the post-September 11 conjuncture?
  • Is it possible to disentangle needs, rights and security, and if so, how and with what consequences?
  • If 2021 proves to be another moment of reckoning in the history of contemporary humanitarianism – similar in magnitude to the soul searching of the 1990s following the events in Rwanda and Bosnia – how are we to appraise the project of expanding governance and limiting sovereignty that emerged in response to those crises, and that norms like the Responsibility to Protect exemplified? And how could discourses and practices of needs, rights and security redraw their respective boundaries if they are to go their separate way?
  • And finally, what imagination of the world might emerge as the complex intermingling of needs, rights and security ceases to be the ceiling of the most that we can hope for?



Opening Remarks and Introduction: Professor Rodney Smith, University of Sydney

Professor Ilana Feldman, George Washington University, “Humanitarian Governance From Below: Lessons from the Palestinian Experience”

Discussant: Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen, University of Sydney

11.30-12.30: Break


Professor Michael Humphrey, University of Sydney, “International lawmaking and the evolution of global governance”

Associate Professor Jessica Whyte, University of New South Wales, “Neoliberalism and the Critique of Global Governance”

2.00-2.30pm: Break 


Dr Sara León Spesny, University of Sydney, “Beyond pacification: The rise and fall of a “humanitarian” policing project in a Brazilian favela”

Dr Ihab Shalbak, University of Sydney, “Human rights in Palestine: From achieving sovereignty to producing governmentality”

4.00-6.00pm: Break


Dr Estella Carpi, University College London, “Neither for rights nor for needs: Temporality, adaptation, and the politics of crisis-making in Lebanon”

Dr Suraina Pasha, Independent Researcher, “Securitised-Humanitarianism in Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan”


Humanitarian Governance From Below: Lessons from the Palestinian Experience

Professor Ilana Feldman (George Washington University)

The international humanitarian order is regularly beset with questions about its effectiveness and its ethics. And humanitarian actors, both policy-makers in distant metropoles and practitioners working on the ground, regularly seek to remake this system, with an eye to providing better value for donors and more responsiveness to aid recipients. Approaches and concepts such as participation, resiliency, cash transfers, and, most recently, localization, have all emerged from efforts to transform humanitarian governance. This talk explores the stakes of such efforts through the example of the long Palestinian experience with humanitarian aid. Approaching the question of humanitarian governance from the perspective of aid recipients, it takes stock of how recipients evaluate aid and how they alter the dynamics humanitarian practice

International lawmaking and the evolution of global governance

Professor Michael Humphrey (University of Sydney)

The post-Cold War project of the global liberal governance of humanity has its genealogy in the evolution of the role of international law as the handmaiden to global governance. The Berlin Conference in 1885 established the legal basis for the European imperial powers to partition Africa and acquire sovereignty over their colonies as a civilising project. International intervention was justified, and sovereignty lost, on the basis of universal law established by Western powers. Today international human rights law (IHRL) and international humanitarian law (IHL) have become the fulcra to rescale jurisdiction to international law (e.g. the ICC) and justify political/legal/military intervention in the internal affairs of states either to protect individuals from serious violations of human rights and to force states to meet their obligations under international law. The field of transitional justice is a product of the expansion of international lawmaking as the basis for global liberal governance. This paper looks at the evolution of ‘crimes against humanity’ to illustrate how IHRL and IHL have shaped global liberal governance focusing on Argentina and Colombia. IHRL (the protection of the rights of victims) has come to subordinate IHL, both areas are popularly regarded as the product of the legal mirroring of universal moral values – human dignity, humanitarianism, humanity – and lawmaking is no longer the prerogative of states but includes legal entrepreneurs, NGOs and social movements. Moreover, the UN has become the dominant arena for lawmaking, reinforced by customary law and courts, with the purpose of expanding the protection of individual rights. The trajectory of lawmaking is documented in the Preamble of conventions and treaties providing the genealogy of transition from soft international law (principles, declarations, guidelines) to hard law (conventions, treaties). But while international lawmaking continues to expand it remains unclear exactly what global governance will emerge.

Neoliberalism and the Critique of Global Governance

Associate Professor Jessica Whyte (University of New South Wales)

No sooner had the final US military plane left Kabul than US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to placing human rights “at the centre” of US foreign policy. “But the way we do it is not through endless military deployments,” he said; “it’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying the world to join us.” For some critics, Biden’s rejection of militarised humanitarian interventions marked the end of the age of human rights. Without a country willing to use military force to support it, the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner argued, the “moral superstructure of human rights” is unlikely to survive. Human rights, and especially militarised humanitarian intervention, had its heyday in the 1990s, at the high-point of neoliberalism. In my recent book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, I traced the contribution of neoliberal thinkers to the development of human rights. In this paper, I examine the more recent rejection, by a sub-set of the neoliberal movement, of what former Czech President and Mont Pelerin Society member Vaclav Klaus has called the “accelerating shift to transnationalism and global governance” and “ideologies of humanrightism”. At first sight, such right-wing critiques of an unaccountable and undemocratic human rights bureaucracy that seeks to impose its priorities on populations seem to converge with arguments for democratic governance, self-determination and even sovereignty, that have long animated left-wing and anti-colonial challenges to human rights.  In this paper, I show that the real stake of these right-wing critiques is to ward off challenges to inherited inequalities and the hierarchies of civil society.

Beyond pacification: The rise and fall of a “humanitarian” policing project in a Brazilian favela

Dr Sara León Spesny (University of Sydney)

During the colonization of Brazil, incursions of pacification sought to conquer “hearts and minds” of Indigenous peoples. Terror and violence enmeshed with civilizational and moral discourses. Centuries later, the language of pacification flourished again in Latin America, as reimagined governance projects that curiously juxtapose narratives of renewed life through terror and death. In Rio de Janeiro, the state-level program of pacification of favelas would officially “bring democracy, human rights and full citizenship to favela residents”. The premise of the program was to foster rights through military presence. Thus, the military intrusion is a prerequisite for the social to prosper. The program also exposes the central place of democracy in narratives of pacification, with racial, colonial and moral connotations. This case assists us to think about the military/humanitarian dyad, as constitutive instead as opposed forces. The pacification police implemented techniques of surveillance and control that reinforced and exacerbated a racialized distribution of violence and police terror. The violent turn of Bolsonaro’s government further reveal the extent of the humanitarian/military dyad. The pacification program becomes then a powerful example of contemporary small-scale governance projects within ambivalent states that seek to “pacify” oppressed communities through a dual process of humanization of violence and criminalization of rights.This paper will seek to rethink the notion of pacification and its contemporary expressions as forms of governance in Latin America. I will explore how the humanitarian/militaristic dyad mobilizes humanitarian discourses to justify military intrusions in the everyday life of favela residents.

Human rights in Palestine: From achieving sovereignty to producing governmentality

Dr Ihab Shalbak (University of Sydney)

Although Palestinians are relative late-comers to the purview of human rights, today the language of human rights sets the terms of discussion for those who are involved in the struggle over the fate and destiny of Palestine. The recent string of reports by major human rights organisations attests that long-standing Palestinian claims have been finally registered and heard by the human rights mainstream. Palestinian themselves, to varying degrees and in different capacities, played a major role in using the evaluative-descriptive idioms of human rights to articulate their experience and aspirations. In the 1960s, as the Palestinians constituted themselves as a national liberation movement, human rights principles of equality, justice and freedom resonated with their demands but played an axillary role in shaping their political actions and aspirations. However, as the hopes of decolonisation faded away, human rights began to perform a doubled role in Palestinian lives as a surrogate for a receding politics of emancipation and an avatar of a rapidly advancing global governance. As concepts and practices, human rights contributed to transforming the Palestinian polity from within and without. It is not yet clear, however, whether the recent foregrounding of human rights should be seen as  evidence for hope or as sign of defeat—that is, as an opening or a closure of futurity. Would foregrounding human rights back up Palestinian sovereignty claims or contribute to the production of a governmentality with a liberal face? The first requires transforming the existing colonial order while the second aspires to transcend the conflict by redefining it as a question of discrimination. In the light of Amnesty International 2022 report Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians this paper reflects on the political and analytical significance of this conversion/conflation of emancipation and governance for the political realities of the Palestinians.

Securitised-Humanitarianism in Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan

Dr Suraina Pasha (Independent Researcher)

This paper provides an insight into the modalities of ‘humanitarian government’ (e.g. Agier, 2011) at the height of various Islamist insurgencies in Syria. Drawing on field research in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and desk research, the paper reveals a hyper-securitised form of humanitarianism that represses and criminalises masculine economic and political agency while women and children, presumed to be in need of rescuing from the constraints of traditional culture, are remade through training and education in the mould of the neoliberal subject. This ‘empowerment building’ occurs in tandem with security measures to contain refugees within camp confines and punish recalcitrance through illegalisation and deportation. The end result is refugee rightlessness and the entrenchment of State power within camp space, thus confirming a continuation to some degree of the so-called ‘September 11 conjuncture’ of rights, needs and security in contemporary humanitarian intervention.

Neither for rights nor for needs: Temporality, adaptation, and the politics of crisis-making in Lebanon

Dr Estella Carpi, (University College London)

Throughout modern history, the politics of crisis-making that accompanies volatile contexts has inhibited the capacity to produce radical changes in humanitarian assistance and governance. It has also made us believe that forced migrations simply imply a ‘crisis’, while the story is far more complicated. The language of crisis promotes self-indulgency towards the political responsibilities that subtend deep-seated failures as well as malfunctioning and unjust ways of managing resources. In this talk, I will make some observations on temporality, adaptation and the politics of crisis-making while building on my research in Lebanon and, more specifically, on my upcoming book The Politics of Crisis-Making. Forced Displacement and Cultures of Assistance in Lebanon. I will show how the crisis-focused functioning of humanitarianism prevents us from capturing how the lives of different refugee groups and of local citizens are enmeshed in contexts where humanitarian and welfare regimes problematically overlap; and how war-stricken people understand themselves and other social groups in response to crisis management. These lived experiences will provide important evidence of how the ‘emergencization’ of life, order, and basic service provision – rather than emergency per se – drags Lebanon into Sisyphean cycles of crisis-driven resourcefulness, reconstruction, and collapse. In this context, the politics of crisis-making is aimed at shaping people’s subjectivities and their expectations rather than catering to people’s changing – and unchanged – needs. Instead of being an actual plan of the humanitarian system, the ‘capacity to adapt’ appears to be an individual responsibility which aspiring beneficiaries are continuously burdened with.

Speaker and discussant Bios

Professor Ilana Feldman

Ilana Feldman is Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University and the former Vice Dean of the Elliott School. Her research has focused on the Palestinian experience, both inside and outside of historic Palestine, examining practices of government, humanitarianism, policing, displacement, and citizenship. She is the author of ‘Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule’, 1917-67 (2008), ‘Police Encounters: Security and Surveillance in Gaza under Egyptian Rule’, (2015), ‘Life Lived in Relief: Humanitarian Predicaments and Palestinian Refugee Politics,’ (2018); and co-editor (with Miriam Ticktin) of ‘In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care’, (2010).

Professor Michael Humphrey

Michael Humphrey is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, Macquarie University and the University of Western Sydney. He works in comparative sociology and has published widely on the themes of Islam in the West; the Lebanese diaspora; social relations of globalisation; war, political violence and terrorism; human rights, reconciliation and transitional justice; violence, displacement and urban securitisation; neoliberal urbanisation, corruption and the corporate state. His main book publications are ‘The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation: from terror to trauma’, (Routledge, 2002) and the forthcoming book with Estela Valverde, ‘Transitional Justice and Impunity: the judicialisation of politics’, (Intersentia, 2020).

Associate Professor Jessica Whyte

Jessica Whyte is Scientia Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, with a cross-appointment in the Faculty of Law. Her work integrates political philosophy, intellectual history and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights, humanitarianism and militarism. She is author of ‘Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben’, (SUNY 2013) and ‘The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism’ (Verso, 2019) and an editor of ‘Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development’. More of her research is available here:

Dr Sara León Spesny
Sara León Spesny is an Academic Fellow in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research has been carried out in Central and South America. As an anthropologist, Sara has a special interest in the police and policing practices as forms of management of population (specially in post-colonial spaces) as well their role in delimiting the socio-urban borders of the Latin-American city.

Dr Ihab Shalbak

Ihab Shalbak is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Social Policy- the University of Sydney. His research examines the relation between dominant forms of knowledge and politics, and interrogates the politics of institutional knowledge production. Along these lines, he has written on think tanks, human rights NGOs, and on the development of American Pragmatism. Ihab’s latest publications include ‘The Birth of the Think Tank: RAND and the Development of a Technocratic Worldview’ in The Triumph of Managerialism: New Technologies of Government and their Implications for Value, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), and ‘Hegemony Thinking: Detour Through Gramsci’ (Thesis Eleven Journal, 2018). In addition, Ihab published a number of public articles and presented papers on the Palestine question. He is currently working on a book project that traces the emergence of the think tank.

Dr Suraina Pasha

Suraina Pasha is a casual academic and independent researcher. She obtained her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Sydney in 2019 for a thesis on the humanitarian governance of Syrian refugees in Jordan. She held a Visiting Fellowship appointment at the Department of Sociology of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE) in 2020. Prior to her transition to academia she worked in the human rights and humanitarian sector for over a decade. Recent research publications include: ‘Humanitarianism, Securitisation and Containment in a Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan’, (British Journal of Sociology, 2021); and ‘Humanitarianism Without Rights: Refugee Securitisation and the Politics of Containment in Jordan Post 9-11’, (Rowaq Arabi, 2021).

Dr Estella Carpi

Estella Carpi is a social anthropologist mainly working on humanitarianism, forced displacement and identity politics in the Middle Eastern region. She is presently a research associate at University College London and an adjunct lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen

Sonja van Wichelen is Associate Professor with the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research broadly engages with the body, law, and science in the age of globalisation and the effects that changes in these areas have on our understanding of citizenship. Her current project (funded by the Australian Research Council) investigates the impact of globalisation and biomedicine on the legal governance of family life. She is the director of the Biopolitics of Science Research Network and co-editor of the Book Series ‘Biolegalities: Law and Bioscience in the twenty-first Century’ (Palgrave Macmillan). She is the author of ‘Religion, Gender and Politics in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim Body’ (Routledge, 2010); co-editor of ‘Commitment and Complicity in Cultural Theory and Practice’, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She publishes widely on the topic of law and family life, global reproduction, religion and the body, migration and citizenship.


Mar 16 2022


10:00 am - 7:30 pm

Comments are closed.