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World Humanitarian Summit: New Thinking, Old Feuds

This week’s WHS promises wide-ranging consultations and a break with convention in order to find solutions fast, but with some high-profile absences – from MSF to Syria and the Saudis – just effective how can it be?

Written by Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
United Nations security personnel, left and Turkish armed forces officers, right, attend a flag raising ceremony, marking the opening of business at the World Humanitarian Summit, in Istanbul, on Saturday, May 21, 2016. AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

THE ROAD TO this week’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) is paved with good intentions. Humanitarian crises are a global problem and, for a solution to be effective, everyone must be held accountable. WHS’s core goal is to bring all humanitarian players, big and small, rich and poor, together so that they can hash out the much-needed reforms in order to help a world where 125 million people will need humanitarian assistance to get by in 2016.

It’s a lofty yet altruistic undertaking, especially if one considers that there are tens of thousands of groups with a vested interest in the humanitarian field with needs as diverse as they are numerous. The conference’s open-ended structure and the notable names missing from the roster of participants mean the summit alone may not be enough to transform the global-aid sphere from one that means well to one that can actually do good.

After three years of consultations with some 27,000 people across 153 countries, the United Nations concluded that the international humanitarian system needed a major overhaul. The U.N. announced the first World Humanitarian Summit, a three-day humanitarian bonanza that has turned into something akin to a Crisis-Con. At least 5,000 stakeholders, world leaders, nongovernmental organizations, private-sector companies and aid agencies will attend the summit in Istanbul to discuss and (hopefully) commit to the U.N.’s five main “core responsibilities”: preventing and ending conflict; respecting the rules of war; leaving no one behind on the sustainable development agenda; working more effectively to end need; and investing in humanity.

“The summit is a way of saying, ‘Let’s come together, let’s really understand how we can work better, let’s make commitments for the future,’” Stephen O’Brien, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the U.N News Centre. “With lots of heads of government, heads of state coming, many, many countries represented, that will drive forward our agenda for the next few years.”

The WHS agenda is split between high-level roundtables on topics including political leadership to end crises, addressing forced displacement and humanitarian financing; special sessions on topics including Islamic social finance, migrants and humanitarian action and risk and vulnerability analysis; and a number of stakeholder-hosted side events.

A Summit Announcement Plenary will be held on the final day, where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hopes that state leaders and major stakeholders will vow to increase their efforts “to end conflict, alleviate suffering, and reduce risk and vulnerability,” and pledge their commitment to the core responsibilities.

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.

“The summit’s success will come down to whether key players – states, large U.N. agencies and NGOs – can muster the courage to make serious commitments and live up to them,” Sara Pantuliano, the managing director at the Overseas Development Institute, told Devex.

Bring Your Own Policy

The U.N.’s mold for international summits has always adhered to roughly the same structure. They are often the culmination of closed-door negotiations that lasted several years where majority stakeholders reached a consensus and outlined a plan for the future. But WHS has an all-new summit structure.

Unlike previous U.N. summits, heads of state and government delegations are not the focal point, and they are not solely responsible for outlining or leading the conversations. Stakeholders with even just a remote involvement in the global humanitarian infrastructure have been invited to have their say, including all 193 U.N. member states.

The WHS format allows aid organizations, heads of state and private sector companies to arrive in Istanbul armed with their own agendas, and many have already issued statements outlining their individual commitments and areas of need.

The Geneva-based International Council of Voluntary Agencies issued policy papers for each of the five “core responsibilities.” The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement published a position paper outlining their focus areas of discussion. Some 60 members of the InterAction NGO network signed a statement outlining their commitments to the humanitarian sphere.

The U.S. delegation will focus on three priority areas during the summit’s discussions, Jeremy Konyndyk, director of U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), told News Deeply.

At the top of this list is the need to reduce the impact of conflict on civilians, particularly the importance of safe humanitarian access, “which is an acute problem in Syria,” Konyndyk said. The U.S. will also focus on ways to strengthen the humanitarian system so it can better respond to the increasing number of protracted crises, as well as the alignment between humanitarian and development needs.

“In the Middle East, refugee populations have been in host countries for years and years and look to stay there for years and years,” said Konyndyk. “It has become more than just, ‘How do we keep these people fed for the next six months?’”

The Politics of Invitation

Thousands of humanitarian organizations, private-sector companies, foundations and over 100 U.N. member states will be attending. The turnout is much larger than expected, but the list of participants is missing some key players in today’s most devastating humanitarian crises.

Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, Iran, Libya and Afghanistan were not on the WHS’s latest list of 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.

When asked what the U.S. hopes to see in terms of aid for Syria without these key players, Konyndyk said they would do all they could to “reinforce global support for the norm. If countries don’t respect that, then the question of why [they don’t] is better posed to them.”

But even countries who will send delegations have been questioned about their commitment to its success. Of the 160 U.N. member states attending the event, heads of state will only lead about 50 of those delegations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would send a delegation but would personally boycott the event because the summit gave “preference to some stakeholders at the expense of others,” according to a statement issued by the Russian government. U.S. President Barack Obama will also be absent from the summit, and has appointed USAID’s director Gayle Smith to lead the delegation.

The U.S. appointment has garnered criticism from some aid organizations who claimed Obama’s absence would weaken the American position at the summit. But USAID have defended the decision, and Konyndyk told News Deeply that Smith was appointed “because the president feels she is the best person for the job.”

Aid Expectations

Hundreds of major aid organizations will also be at the summit, with the exception of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the international organization that provides health and medical support in more than 60 countries, including some of the world’s most violent conflict zones. MSF said it no longer had hope that the summit would “address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.”

Primarily, MSF criticized the summit for neglecting to address some of the biggest violations of international humanitarian law, the majority of which are carried out by states who are not likely to attend.

At least 75 hospitals managed or supported by MSF were bombed last year, including a facility in Afghanistan hit by a U.S. airstrike. Last month, a Syrian government airstrike destroyed an MSF-supported hospital in Aleppo, one of the last remaining facilities with a functioning emergency room, intensive care unit and operating room. In Yemen, at least three health facilities were struck by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s missiles over the last year.

“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 MSF’s statement said. “The summit has become a fig leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.”

Oxfam told Refugees Deeply that it understood MSF’s reasons for withdrawing from the summit, but it will still attend so that it “can hold world leaders to account and contribute to the urgently needed reforms of the humanitarian system.”

“People’s faith in world leaders to address the fundamental problems facing the humanitarian system, from arms deals to the breaking of international humanitarian law, is at an all-time low,” said Christina Corbett, Oxfam’s humanitarian press officer. “The important thing is not to lose sight of the 125 million people affected by these disasters and conflicts.”

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