AUB City Debates: From War Zones to Safe Cities: Humanitarianism, Militarization, and Displacement

This is a synthesis of the keynote “From War Zones to Safe Cities: Humanitarianism, Militarization, and Displacement” given by Pr Jennifer Hyndman (York University, United Kingdom) and discussed by Dr Nikolas Konstantopoulos (American University of Beirut, Lebanon) at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here).

Untitled, c. Adam Jones, photo taken in the Puthukkudiyiruppu War Museum, Sri Lanka

Untitled, c. Adam Jones, photo taken in the Puthukkudiyiruppu War Museum, Sri Lanka


The topic is hard to approach at first side for a political and feminist geographer who does not have a lot of experience in urban geography. Professor Hyndman therefore thanks a few of her colleagues who helped her on preparing this talk but, more importantly, uses that acknowledgement to explain why she is not giving two other talks which would appear interesting for that topic:

  1. The first talk would have focused on the category of “safe city” as used in the context of the Bosnian Civil War with a focus on the use of that category as an institution, in particular by international organisations. It would have discussed the way this top-down policy has contributed to ethnic segregation, by establishing certain areas as safe for specific ethnic groups, therefore encouraging them to move and “organising” the territory along ethnic divides; and to ethnic cleansing, by leading to the identification of sizeable zones which could be targeted by militias which the UN had no means to fight.
  2. The second talk could have been a discussion on the question of protracted refugee camps and their relation to the urban. The argument would then have been that referring to camps as cities or urban phenomena would have hidden their top-down and control dimensions and was therefore out of the question. Instead, the expansion of the camp to the city, and the fact that cities can be camps, is a realistic perspective.

These two discussions’ reflexion has been “merged” into the case of Sri Lanka, to question how in the post/war (and the separation is important here as a post/war situation is a situation when the rules of the war still apply to a context which officially is not war anymore, as we will see) situation of Colombo, securisation and militarisation shaped by the war situation contribute to reshaping the urban.

The main argument will be that even after the failure of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), the state of Sri-Lanka has employed the risk of their return and the representation of that risk as a mean to control and normalise territory, through securitisation and the use of tourism in particular. The access of tourists to sites reminding the presence of the LTTE is made upon the militarisation of urban governance and in particular in Colombo.

Securitisation as a concept

Securitisation can be comprehended as a phenomenon through which a social or political problem is treated primarily or only through the lens of security, thus justifying the application of exceptional measures. Often securitisation has been approached in an “up in the air” manner, while observing the urban directly allows observing how securitisation is being embodied and consolidates the fragmentation of cities. Hyndman insists that as a referential, securitisation emerges in contexts in which the main or only perspective for the future is that of a catastrophe.

A particular way to look at securitisation is by taking tourism as an object. Indeed, tourism embodies or realises this project by relying on sites which become sites of everyday geopolitics, and by requiring the “protection” of specific areas – which are thus taken away from their inhabitants, who cannot return.

Securitisation in Sri Lanka

The part began with a photograph of the monument celebrating the victory of Sri Lanka over the LTTE, installed in the middle of a region traditionally supportive to that movement. As Hyndman insisted, the flag of Sri Lanka had not been on display in these regions for a very long time. Since 2009 there is a production by the state of Sri Lanka of an embodiment of the victory, in particular through the production of sites (such as this one, but also the display of “traditional” locations associated with the Tamil Tigers, such as the War Museum displaying the weapons and vehicles used by the LTTE or the “terrorist swimming pool”, part of a larger complex, in which soldiers have set up a café for the tourists who want to visit it).

Another part of this embodiment of the victory in sites is that of a possible return of the LTTE: in all sites and as part of the types of “tours” organised around them are reminders of the threat and the possible return of the Tamil Tigers. This discourse is used to justify a logic of precautionary risk according which action has to be taken for a danger yet to appear. The post/war context is a context in which politics become a war by other means (or, to put it in a Sri Lankan citizen’s words, “a war without sound”). This is particularly visible in the case of city reconstruction.

Urban redevelopment in Colombo

In 2010, the government started a project of urban redevelopment of Colombo on a similar program to the one of Haussmanian Paris, mixing together sanitation, development, and securitisation. The official plan was to eliminate shanties and make the city attractive to investors and new inhabitants. In fact, the project has produced an important amount of urban refugees, and has contributed to “encamp” the city itself. Indeed the organisation of the “redeveloped” city is expanded from logics already present in refugee camps. In this World Bank supported project, we can notice that

  1. Muslims have been pushed out of Colombo
  2. Labour and workers were displaced to other places of the city and the “redeveloped” part no longer has a lot of production realised in it
  3. Securitisation has led to a diminishment of democracy through the argument of necessity

These phenomena can be observed through a great number of public places modified, in particular certain hospitals which have been turned into over-securitised touristic locations and shopping centres, with a multiplication of security cameras and police presence, normalisation of space, and so forth. The presence of soldiers as builders can also be quoted. As the concept presented by Mike Davis of “architecture in reverse” shows, there can be hidden agendas in urban policy, and especially rejuvenation or renovation can be the perfect frame for justifying policies of militarization and securitisation of the city, leading to marginalisation and the rise of spatial injustice.


We must elaborate post/war contexts not a “peace” or “peace building”, but rather as a continuation of war, by other means. The case of beautification, which has in Sri Lanka been a way for the state to reinstall its domination, can be a good example of violence by means of the urban.


Dr Konstantopoulos saluted the presentation as interesting and successful in its attempt to discuss post/war contexts. He quoted a number of cases in which a “state of exception” inverted from the one of the refugees, applied to tourists in several contexts, such as the one of certain British tourists on flights to Spain granted a “right” not to behave according to the company’s policy (especially regarding alcohol) because of their situation, or Israeli tourists obtaining the expelling of Arabs from their flight. There could on that account be a parallel between the statuts of tourist, citizen (and refugee?). This can appear in the double relation of the Greek citizens towards the beaches “reserved” for tourists and the ones “reserved” for refugees, for example.

Regarding the presentation, Dr Konstantopoulos asked for more information regarding the actors at stake, in particular the markets, investors, companies playing a role in this process.

Finally, he put that case in relation with a similar work by a non-state actor in Lebanon, in the case of the Mleeta Museum of Resistance set up by the Hizbullah.

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, March 13). AUB City Debates: From War Zones to Safe Cities: Humanitarianism, Militarization, and Displacement. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

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