Friday 30 September 2016

Eamonn Meehan: Total absence of political will to stop humanitarian crises emerging is the biggest issue

By Eamonn Meehan

Published 24/05/2016 | 14:16

Greek policemen stand next to migrants at a makeshift refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the northern Greek village of Idomeni. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
Greek policemen stand next to migrants at a makeshift refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the northern Greek village of Idomeni. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

AROUND the world today there are approximately 125 million people – almost 20 times the combined Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland populations – in need of humanitarian assistance.

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Humanitarian aid saves lives when disaster strikes. Sadly, however, the humanitarian system is creaking and is increasingly unable to respond adequately to growing need.

Much of the pressure on the system stems from a failure of politics to tackle the underlying causes of humanitarian crises. Rather than act to resolve these crises, the political system often exacerbates them.

Globally, there are 60 million people displaced, more than at any stage since the end of World War II. Almost one-fifth of these people are Syrian, whose country has been torn apart by five years of brutal conflict. Far from focusing on ending this war, world powers have played active roles in fuelling it. The permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s biggest arms dealers – often their main priority is not peace. Syria has become a bloody proxy playground for regional and international powers to compete against each other for influence.

Other major sources of displacement – Burundi, Eritrea, Somalia – generate little more than a shrug of the shoulders from an indifferent international community content to write-off ‘failed states’ but unprepared to deal with the human consequences.

The climate crisis, meanwhile, is largely driven by the world’s most developed economies, who continue to maintain an over reliance on fossil fuels despite knowing with absolute certainty that those fuels are causing droughts, storms and floods across the globe.

It is in this context that the World Humanitarian Summit met in Istanbul this week. The Summit was called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as an historic coming together of world leaders to act with greater urgency, coherence and solidarity to end conflicts, address needs and reverse the growing deficit of humanity.

The Summit was billed as the humanitarian equivalent of the UN Climate Summit held last December in Paris, but sadly it was destined to disappoint. Heads of states from all countries were expected to attend but fewer than half actually did.

With a scheduled meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council coinciding with the summit, senior ministers from most EU Member States were absent when Ban Ki-moon’s called for a more coherent political approach to easing humanitarian need.

This is a sad commentary on Europe’s growing indifference to suffering outside its borders. Unwilling to agree on how to offer protection to just 160,000 displaced Syrians, Europe’s recent deal with Turkey has given a dangerous signal that the EU regards civilian populations as commodities to be traded, and international law as a voluntary code of conduct.

The failure of the political system to buy-in to Ban Ki-moon’s vision is reflective of the general malaise surrounding the international community’s interest in and willingness to tackle humanitarian crises.

The global community has all too often failed to fund humanitarian responses - the UN’s 2016 appeal for Syria is just 14 per cent funded, while other appeals, for countries such as South Sudan, Yemen and Iraq, are just one-quarter funded – but the real failure has been the lack of political will to tackle the underlying causes of the crises. Ultimately, the majority of the world’s humanitarian crises are caused by political failure, and no amount of interventions by humanitarian agencies can disguise that or adequately rebuild broken lives.

International humanitarian law is flouted almost daily in every conflict around the world. Conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, to name but a few, are characterised by attacks on civilians and civilian medical facilities, with little recourse for those responsible beyond public condemnation.

Ultimately, the international community must recommit itself to international humanitarian and human rights law. Ban Ki-moon’s vision for a global summit to secure commitment and agreement on these issues was admirable and desperately needed. It is a damning indication of global political apathy that so few governments have heeded his call.

Of course, there were some positives to salvage from the Summit. In particular, the emphasis on increasing the focus on local organisations in humanitarian responses is welcome. Many countries facing crisis have a functioning civil society capable of responding to crisis, what they need is funding from outside bodies and governments in order to do so. A shift from remote-management of humanitarian assistance to genuine partnership with communities will strengthen the quality and relevance of humanitarian assistance.

Yet, even this progress is a far cry from Ban Ki-moon’s vision of securing political agreement to prevent and end conflict and uphold international law.

The World Humanitarian Summit was billed as a step towards ensuring the humanitarian system is fit to respond to the challenges it faces. Sadly, it appears that it will instead act as a symbol of the disjointed and incoherent system that millions of people around the world rely on for their very survival.

Éamonn Meehan is the Executive Director of Trócaire.

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