All odds against the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)

20 May

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin, The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

Coming Monday, the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) would meet from May 23-24, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Unfortunately, it is one international high-level gathering that both the United Nations and the international community wait for with some anxiety.

The summit is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal initiative, coming as it does in the face of the present worrying state of affairs of the world, and as he prepares to leave office by the end of the current year.

In his report to the General Assembly, entitled One humanity: shared responsibility (A/70/709), Mr. Ban Ki-moon clearly states the rationale for his action, as follows:

    “As I enter my final year, despite the progress made in agreeing on new frameworks and norms, I remain deeply concerned about the state of our humanity. In too many places, peace, stability and sustainable economic growth remain elusive. Brutal and seemingly intractable conflicts have devastated the lives of millions of people, threatening the futures of entire generations. More countries are slipping into fragility, marked by extreme poverty and weak institutions and compounded by natural hazards and climate-induced disasters. Violent extremism, terrorism and transnational crime are creating persistent instability. Growing economic inequality within countries and the widening gap between the rich and the poor are further marginalizing the most vulnerable people in society. Climate change continues to cause increased humanitarian stress as it exacerbates food insecurity, water scarcity, conflict, migration and other trends. Disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. Pandemics, epidemics and other global health threats continue to emerge frequently, and at worrying levels. As millions of people leave their homes in search of safety or opportunity, the capacity and willingness of countries to absorb them is being seriously challenged. Although towns and cities provide new opportunities, rapid unplanned urbanization combined with natural hazards, pandemics and aerial bombardments are placing even more people at risk.”

Unfortunately, a key player in humanitarian activities around the world and a recipient of Nobel Prize for its work – Doctors Without Borders (MSF, in its French acronym) – announced in a May 5 press release its withdrawal from the summit’s preparatory processes.

In its press release, MSF starkly put it three weeks before the summit: “We no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.”

General Director of MSF UK Vickie Hawkins said, “The world is collectively failing the victims of crises”.

The question is what has embittered MSF, after 18 months of participation in the WHS preparatory activities?

The opening sentence of its press release begins with the difficult environment it has been operating. For that, it indicated that in 2015, 75 hospitals that are managed or supported by MSF were bombed.

The added reason for its withdrawal from the process contains a very serious charge against the possible outcome of the summit. In that regard, it notes that the WHS process has focused on “incorporation of humanitarian assistance into a broader development and resilience agenda.” It goes on to state, “Further, the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to.”

The press release further added:

“As shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis, WHS participants will be pressed to a consensus on non-specific, good intentions to ‘uphold norms’ and ‘end needs’. The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.”

In brief, MSF’s withdrawal is seen as indictment against governments, since it has indicated in NPR news story governments “would not be bound by any initiatives put forth.”

Ban Ki-moon’s efforts

The United Nations secretary-general’s call to action advises nations to act early enough to prevent complicated problems from ever happening. In that respect, he urges:

    “National governments, regional and international organizations to analyse risks and monitor deteriorating situations. Violations of human rights and violence against civilians, political exclusion,judicial bias, socioeconomic marginalization, corruption and an influx of arms can be key indicators for political tension, risk of violence or the outbreak or relapse of conflict.”

Distributed between seven High-Level Leaders’ Round Tables, the summit’s agenda include:

    *   Political leadership to prevent and end conflicts (Core Responsibility 1)

    *   Upholding the norms that safeguard humanity (Core Responsibility 2)

    *   Leaving no one behind: a commitment to address forced displacement (Core Responsibility 3)

    *   Women and girls: catalyzing action to achieve gender equality (Core Responsibilities 2 and 3)

    *   Natural disasters and climate change: managing and preparing differently (Core Responsibility 4)

    *   From providing assistance to ending need (Core Responsibility 4)

    *   Investing in humanity: humanitarian financing (Core Responsibility 5)

The United Nations expects the summit be attended ‘at the highest political level possible’ from every nation, meaning heads of state or government and non-governmental actors, its anticipated accomplishments, according to the summation of the secretary-general’s views are focussed on three goals:

    *   To re-inspire and reinvigorate a commitment to humanity and to the universality of humanitarian principles.

    *   To initiate a set of concrete actions and commitments aimed at enabling countries and communities to better prepare for and respond to crises, and be resilient to shocks.

    *   To share best practices which can help save lives around the world, put affected people at the center of humanitarian action, and alleviate suffering.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is pushing the world to assume five core responsibilities contained in the Summit’s Agenda. These are:

    *   To prevent and end conflict. The secretary-general is reporting to the global community that the number of political conflicts has grown from 278 in 2006 to 409 in 2015. As a consequence of this, in the ten-year period from 2005 – 2014, the number of conflict-displaced population around the world has grown from 37 million to 60 million.

    *   States need to uphold norms that safeguard humanity;

    *   No one should be left behind;

    *   Change people’s lives — from delivering aid to ending need; and

    *   There is need to invest in humanity.


Commenting on MSF’s withdrawal from the WHS process, The Washington Post Thursday noted, especially regarding the grand efforts to reform the humanitarian system:

“International, national, principled and pragmatic humanitarians alike will all arrive at the World Humanitarian Summit next week. Far from just an agenda of technical reforms, the summit represents the struggle for power and influence in the humanitarian system. And while it likely won’t culminate in a grand declaration or an entirely new aid system for tomorrow, it is certainly the beginning of something new.”

Agreed, fully aware that the beginning of something new in this area may leave behind a deep hole no single group or organization can fill.

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