The two-day World Humanitarian Summit kicked off on May 23 in Istanbul. Do you recall the media headline reporting? There were 5,500 participants, 55 head of states, in this first-ever summit solely focused on the humanitarian crises facing the world today. With the exception of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and she was there to negotiate with Turkey on the return of refugees in return for an end of visas for Turks coming to Europe), no other leader from the richest countries or of the UN Security Council attended. Nor could the Summit mobilise the much-needed resources it had hoped for. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed strong “disappointment” on the absence of leaders of the most powerful countries.
Although they reiterated their appeal for solidarity to aid the most vulnerable people on Earth – 130 million victims of conflicts and natural disasters, none of the attendees could hold out or offer any hope soon. The resources required to rescue the lives of tens of millions of human beings represent only 1 per cent of the total world military expenditure. 80 per cent of the UN humanitarian resources is spent on man-made crises. The funding gap for humanitarian action of an estimated 15 billion dollars, according to UN estimates but to put it in perspective the world is producing 78 trillion dollars of annual Gross Domestic Product.
Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a leading humanitarian organisation with over 5000 humanitarian workers across more than 25 countries explained humanitarian assistance does not reach thousands of victims who are among the most vulnerable of all. “In Fallujah, Iraq, there are now over 50,000 civilians who are besieged, prey to the Islamic State (IS), Engeland cited as an example. “Nobody is helping them, nobody is reaching them, he warned. The Iraqi government is not helping them, the humanitarian organisations cannot reach them.” There are thousands of victims like them who are in dire need but are not reached. In Yemen, Engeland said, there are 20 million civilians among the most vulnerable, while stressing that coalitions supported by Western countries are attacking civilians. Egeland expressed hope that leaders can ask themselves if they can at least stop giving arms, giving money to those armed groups that are systematically violating the humanitarian law, and bombing hospitals and schools, abusing women and children. Fighting parties, be they governmental or militias or opposition or rebels, still get weapons that they use to blow up hospitals and kill civilians, he warned. “Let’s blacklist that armed group and that army and that government…We lack governments saying they will also uphold humanitarian law and the UN refugee convention, keeping borders open and keeping the right of asylum sacrosanct,” Egeland added and then emphasized that “all borders should be open… in Europe, in the Gulf states… in the United States…As Europeans, when we initiated the refugee convention we really felt that asylum was important when we were the asylum seekers. Why don’t we think it’s equally important now, when we are those to whom people come for asylum?”
Oxfam attended the event but decried the "conspicuous absences" of key world leaders who "dodged their responsibility to protect civilians from the ongoing suffering of wars and natural disasters," executive director Winnie Byanyima said in a statement. Oxfam's country director for Turkey, Meryem Aslan, told CBC News the organization was disappointed that "lip service" continued to be paid in some areas. "We were hoping for a stronger commitment to accountability and ending impunity," she said. "There were no such bold actions."
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, warned, “the less we help in conflict zones, the more people will move,” and that “sticking people in camps is not the solution.”
The "political communiqué" signed by summit participants is not legally binding. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) criticized the event as nothing but a "fig-leaf of good intentions" and pulled out earlier this month, in part over the world's failure to protect civilians in conflict zones and the failure of the UN to hold states accountable.
"States increasingly and shamelessly brush aside legal frameworks that once ensured a minimum of hope and humanity for people caught up in crises and war, and for those fleeing violence and despair," Stephen Cornish, executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada, told CBC News in an email Tuesday. "The World Humanitarian Summit could have been an opportunity to address these vital issues but failed to do so."