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Comment: World Humanitarian Summit Roundup

We gather together the highlights of our coverage of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, including key commentaries on the successes and failures of the 9,000-strong gathering.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signs an art installation at the closing ceremony of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. World leaders and representatives of humanitarian organizations from across the globe gathered to discuss reforming a system that many feel is broken. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis


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The underpinnings of the World Humanitarian Summit that took place in Istanbul on May 23-24 can be traced to years of vexation among NGOs, governments and U.N. agencies over failed humanitarian interventions in both conflict and non-conflict contexts. The international community’s inability to cope with the global migration flows “is glaring evidence of this failure,” claim organizations such as Oxfam.

A majority of the civil society actors, including Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council who attended the conference, called for change at all levels of bureaucracy, within governments and the humanitarian sector, for a palpable difference.

Whether aiding the displaced civilians currently stranded in Aleppo or ebbing the flows of refugees leaving the Libyan coast in their thousands over the last week, the change must be systemic and systematic, according to organizations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which abstained from the event.

The summit was a one-of-a-kind venue that brought together several governmental, nongovernmental and intergovernmental actors, which have been working to improve policy on paper and in action and will continue to do so well after the World Humanitarian Summit fades from headlines.

Over the past week, we gathered a collection of views from advocates and diplomats, observers and implementers, critics and supporters, on what ought to be done to revive the ailing system.

MSF-USA Executive Director Jason Cone on the dangers of blurring the lines between state and NGO responsibilities:

“So this summit, I think, in the very practical sense of it, is an intergovernmental process where essentially half of the states that are members of the U.N. are in attendance. This created a somewhat weird setup that has confused both governments and NGOs trying to take part. Who gets to speak? Who gets which platforms? Do we delineate the responsibilities to states, as the secretary-general himself has said, in upholding basic norms?”

… and on the need for better performance on the ground:

“When the funding is there, how effective is the response on the ground? And that gets into the fundamentals of deployment of aid and the quality of staff. There’s also has been a sort of subcontracting that occurs between the so-called large international aid agencies and those who actually implement things on the ground. That sort of subsidiary funding also dilutes accountability.

“You have agencies like the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) that deploy aid, receive aid and are also donors that award funds to different implementing partners. So you also have structural issues in terms of the multi-mandate roles that humanitarian agencies play.”

Refguees Deeply journalist Alessandria Masi’s summation of why the humanitarian summit comes at a crucial time and whether it can be effective:

“On paper, the WHS seems like just what the doctor ordered in our modern, suffering global society. Today, a humanitarian crisis can be the result of anything from political conflicts and drawn-out wars to crippling poverty and devastating natural disasters. And they are happening at a record pace. Between 2008 and 2014, 184 million people have been displaced by natural disasters, the equivalent to one person a second. In 2014, 60 million people fled their homes due to conflict and violence.

“But Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, Iran, Libya and Afghanistan were not among participating member states. Without Syria, Russia and Iran at the discussion tables, any solution to the Syrian crisis, particularly humanitarian aid access, seems unlikely. Saudi Arabia’s absence leaves little hope for progress on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”

UNWRA’s commissioner general Pierre Krähenbühl on investing in the educational futures of Palestinian children trapped in conflict:

“At the Istanbul summit, UNRWA is unveiling a new report whose findings are deeply disturbing. Our study, Schools on the Frontline, reveals that 44 percent of UNRWA’s 692 schools across the Middle East – that’s a staggering 302 – have been directly impacted by conflict and violence in the past five years.

“In Syria, at least 70 percent of 118 UNRWA schools have at some stage of the war been rendered inoperative, either because they were impacted by violence or because we have used them as centers to house the displaced.”

Solon Ardittis, director of Eurasylum, on effective border management as a prerequisite for an effective humanitarian response to migration:

“It is indeed surprising that there is no explicit agenda to discuss national security and border management policies, which would need to take place in tandem with any humanitarian strategy in order to bear fruit. Without implementing coordinated border controls and early warning systems to prevent mass migration from Turkey, Libya and beyond, a viable strategy will be nearly impossible to achieve. It is one of the several elephants in the room that need to be addressed.”

Human Rights Watch researcher Paras Shah on endorsing the charter to include people with disabilities in humanitarian response:

“More than 1 billion people worldwide, or one in seven people, have disabilities. Yet at formal events or high-level speeches, people with disabilities receive one-line mentions alongside a dozen other commitments. Reaching and aiding physically challenged people during conflict and displacement might appear a daunting task. But the path to including people with disabilities starts with simple steps. Before a humanitarian emergency occurs, consult people with disabilities, especially organizations led by them, to see how the response plan can be more inclusive.”

Jeff Crisp of the Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center on recognizing past and present victories of the international humanitarian system:

“In this environment, there is a real risk that states will send their delegates to Istanbul and New York, restate their commitment to the principles of refugee protection and humanitarian action, agree on ambitious but nonbinding plans of action – then return to business as usual. In order to avert that scenario, there is an urgent need to celebrate the past achievements of the international refugee protection system and to highlight the support it continues to enjoy.”

Migration consultant and regular Refugees Deeply contributor Paul Currion on the need to include IDPs in humanitarian response:

“The report of the secretary-general for the WHS starts promisingly with a commitment to reduce the number of IDPs globally by 50 percent by 2030 – but then it moves to discussing refugees rather than IDPs, and that’s when the proposals become increasingly vague. This is extremely disappointing, considering that the WHS consultations – an unprecedented worldwide series of eight regional consultations involving more than 23,000 people and more than 400 written submissions – expressed a clear need for “a new international cooperation framework on predictable and equitable sharing of responsibility to respond to large-scale refugee movements.”

Christine Mahoney, professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia, on envisaging new forms of political advocacy for the displaced:

“The policy of warehousing has many negative consequences including aid dependence, drug addiction, sexual exploitation and militia recruitment. The stagnation fuels violence, devastates lives and leads to conflicts between the host communities and the displaced. There is a pattern to their suffering. In country after country, the displaced endure similar conditions and face similar barriers to escaping their destructive situation. The question we must pose at this juncture is: Why has advocacy to end prolonged displacement failed so miserably?”

Journalist John Owens on the psychological distance between Istanbul and Athens:

“While Istanbul prepares to host the World Humanitarian Summit, the woes of tens of thousands of refugees stuck in limbo have remained unheard for months. The U.N.-led gathering attended by 9,000 people aims to make refugees a pivotal point of discussion, yet it is far from offering any immediate respite for people like Khalil [a Syrian refugee in Greece]. In Greece, in particular, the asylum and relocation system – a central plank in European Union efforts to deal with the refugee crisis – is failing. It has pushed many displaced people into taking desperate measures.”

Alessandria Masi on the need for revisiting the “rules of war” charted in the aftermath of World War II:

“Today, states that break the rules of war often gain the upper hand in battle, non-state actors are not held accountable for violations, and the consequences for even the most blatant International Humanitarian Law (IHL) abuses are mostly empty threats. And without fixes to IHL’s major flaws, civilians will continue to bear the brunt of modern warfare.

“These rules, conceived in the aftermath of World War II, are designed to set limits to armed conflict by codifying protections for people who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, and by restricting the means and methods of warfare. But a sampling of today’s conflicts shows that the rules of war are being completely ignored. The reach of global violence has never been greater.”

The Fuller Project for International Reporting on the difficulties that Syrian refugee children face in accessing education in Turkey (while Turkey showcased its educational achievements at the summit):

“Turkey has taken a central role in the response to the Syria crisis, hosting close to 3 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country. Some 330,000 children are already enrolled in Turkish schools, according to the education ministry. But many are struggling. While those with the means have enrolled in Syrian-run private schools that operate outside the Turkish system, nearly 500,000 children remain entirely cut off from the education system. Many have been pushed into early marriage or the labor market, while others sit in temporary homes or roam Turkish streets.”

This is an updated version of an earlier published article.

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