Forsythe studies, lectures on international relief on Fulbright in Denmark

Released on 02/09/2009, at 3:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., February 9th, 2009 —
David Forsythe in Copenhagen (color JPEG)
David Forsythe in Copenhagen (color JPEG)

When fighting broke out in Gaza earlier this year, relief workers struggled to deliver medical care and supplies amid near-constant shelling. Without aid, civilians in war zones often cannot survive.

How, then, can governments and nongovernmental organizations create "neutral humanitarian spaces," which protect relief workers and enable care of civilians caught in conflict situations?

David Forsythe, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, sought answers to this question while serving as a senior Fulbright professor in Denmark in fall 2008.

"There are laws of war, such as the Geneva Conventions, which do specify that military parties can't attack civilians, should offer assistance, and must treat wounded individuals. But it's difficult to make these laws work in the field, in reality," Forsythe said.

The old paradigm of international relief -- that workers would move into an area at the conclusion of a conflict -- has changed in the past 30 years, and relief workers are expected to be on the ground even during the most intense fighting.

"The cutting-edge question in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and as it is in Gaza, is how can these agencies operate right in the middle of the conflict," Forsythe said. "If you go back to World War II for example, it was expected that the Red Cross would move in and assist the civilian population after the fighting had finished. In roughly 1970, the expectation grew that you shouldn't wait until the fighting was over. Needless to say this is tricky business."

The treatment of civilians and the presence of aid agencies become significantly more complex in a conflict without a defined winner and loser. Some sort of settlement must be negotiated in the midst of conflict, to allow relief workers access to local populations.

A prominent scholar of human rights and humanitarian law, Forsythe's interest in democracy and terrorism was well suited to scholarship under way at the Danish Institute for International Studies, a think tank funded by the Danish parliament.

In 2005, controversy exploded after cartoons perceived as anti-Muslim by many in the Islamic world appeared in a Danish newspaper. What followed was a backlash against Denmark in the Islamic world, including a boycott of Danish products and riots at a number of embassies. Because of that controversy, Forsythe said, the Danes are keenly interested in the relationship between democracy and Islam.

For a small country, Denmark also has a proportionally large presence of military troops on the ground in Afghanistan, as well as a number of humanitarian agencies, which often find their employees the targets of attacks. In his Fulbright research, Forsythe examined how an agency like the Danish Red Cross can operate in Afghanistan and remain politically neutral, while accepting the protection of military forces. Again, it's a complex situation, he said, because humanitarian groups are able to operate based on the perception of neutrality and impartiality.

Forsythe spent his time in Denmark delivering lectures, attending conferences, and working on research for the Danish Institute for International Studies and for his own upcoming book, which examines U.S. policy toward enemy prisoners after 9/11 and the European role in supporting these policies. He had an opportunity to meet scholars from all over Europe who visited the institute and local universities as guest lecturers.

"The economic situation is going to have an adverse effect on humanitarian activity," he said. "There will be less money for humanitarian relief, as the individuals and governments and corporations that fund these groups are all under economic stress. We will continue to have emergencies in Gaza, Afghanistan and Darfur, but financially we're entering tough times."

Back at UNL this semester, Forsythe will fold his Fulbright experiences into the courses he teaches on U.S. foreign policy and human rights.

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