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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

European Regional Meeting in Geneva March 2019

From neutrality to engagement

From neutrality to engagement

ISPSO European Regional Meeting, Geneva
15-17 March 2019

Chateau de Bossey, Geneva, Switzerland

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2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Heralded as a new dawn, with hopes for new beginnings and greater global unity, the reality we face today is one of a more fractured and conflicted world. The global refugee crisis, reflecting challenges faced in post-colonial Africa and the complexities of conflicts in the Middle East, nationalist discourses, such as Brexit, America’s so­cietal splitting, the deepening rift between east and west in the EU, and debates surrounding global warming and the role of religion reflect some of this. Large­ scale geopolitics is not the only setting for such division, though. Conflicts are emerging in the organisations we work for, our families and within ourselves.

In a world where nationalist movements rail against the global approaches, and where new borders appear, whilst other become porous, the United Nations (UN) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) play a key role in responding to these challenges. Both organisations must, as central to their work, navigate the contradictory-yet-interrelated elements of engagement and neutrality that simultaneously exist. They must strike the balance between remaining faithful to their mandates, including peace-keeping and hu­manitarian protection, and to the principle of neutrality, which is the key to keep­ing the trust of all parties.

Switzerland with its long heritage of neutrality, remained outside the UN for five decades. The referendum decision to join in 2002 polarized the Swiss society, with half the population keen to engage, and the other half reluctant to move away from Switzerland’s historic position.

Although a large part of its populace remains faithful to neutrality, Switzerland, has become, over the last seventeen years, one of the most actively-engaged UN members.

What is it for UN and IFRC staff to be simultaneously neutral and engaged? How do they experience this while navigating organisational boundaries and a complex network of nation states, donors and other groups, often representing opposing interests? How does it affect the internal dynamics of both organisations and that of Swiss society as a whole?

The 17th ISPSO European Regional Meeting takes place in Geneva, “the city of peace”, in a context where the dynamics of neutrality and engagement play out daily. Through a psychoanalytic lens we will interpret the work of the UN, IFRC and Switzerland in supporting this balance with the aim of then applying these insights to the circumstances of neutrality and engagement that affect other current societal, organisational and interpersonal contexts.

Does engaged neutrality exist and is it equivalent to neutral engagement? Are these concepts located along a continuum? Do these positions serve as catalysts in conflict resolution? If yes, how? Through the exercise of reflecting on the par­adox of neutrality and engagement, participants will share their thoughts, emo­tions and fantasies and be encouraged to take this learning back to their professional practices, private lives and the work of engaging with the conflicts of today.