Sunday 17 December 2017

President poses tough questions on our response to the global humanitarian crisis

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

Elites in some countries have "robbed their own people", arms controls have "not been successful" and the response of the public to international disasters including civil wars should not be a "substitute" for government action, President Michael D Higgins has said.

In a hard-hitting interview in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, which opens in Istanbul on Monday, the President said the world would have to admit that it is "failing" to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and needs to fundamentally change how it tackles international crises caused by war and natural disasters.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, he also said that tax agreements struck between developing countries and multinational corporations were depriving the world's poorest of the opportunity to develop a sustainable tax base to help pull themselves out of poverty and grow their economies.

Diplomatic efforts to end conflict were not working, he said, and the world was now at a point not seen since the Second World War due to issues of global poverty, displaced people and large-scale conflict all occurring at the same time.

"We have to re-look at how we are responding to the humanitarian crisis," he said.

"A short-term response is not going to be work any more. We are facing a massive population increase (in the coming years) to more than nine billion people (by 2050). If we fail in the development model, we add to the other crises."

The World Humanitarian Summit was called by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and aims to set out a long-term agenda to address humanitarian challenges.

But it has been criticised by the international medical organisation Médécins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) for being a "fig-leaf" of good intentions.

President Higgins will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders from the Central African Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Netherlands and Niger, among others, for the two-day conference.

He will address a high-level leaders' round-table meeting on improving the international response on Monday, as well as other events covering gender equality, securing concrete commitments and action to deliver aid and guaranteeing resources to preserve life and dignity for those affected.

In a document produced by Mr Ban for the summit, 'One Humanity: Shared Responsibility', the outgoing secretary-general said the lives of 125 million people had been devastated by violence and natural disasters and they were in "desperate need" of protection.

There are 11 major civil wars today, compared with four in 2007, meaning that the international community is "in a state of constant crisis management" and is "struggling" to find political and security solutions to end them.

Urban areas are being used as battlegrounds, women are being raped and schools, hospitals and places of worship are "being bombed with alarming frequency and at alarming levels".

The "utter lack of respect" for fundamental rules of law "threatens to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits", it adds.

President Higgins said: "When I read the document, my first response was that this is a real declaration from an outgoing secretary-general who is saying we have failed in terms of diplomacy.

"He says the true measure of the success of the UN is not how much we promise, but how much we deliver. He is admitting, and this is tragic in a way, that 75pc of people are fleeing from conflict in five countries where we have had no diplomatic resolution.

"Look at the number of displaced persons, the highest level since the Second World War, at 60 million. There are people displaced by natural disasters and as a result of conflict. You can see that diplomatic failure is not resolving conflict. It's a cry from the heart."

Mr Higgins also said that "short cuts" could not be taken in relation to providing humanitarian assistance or development aid, particularly in light of pressure from international corporations.

"We cannot take short cuts under pressure from multinationals that do not support us either in terms of sustainable development or in terms of climate change," he said.

"Some development taking place has been confined to elites. There are elites who have robbed their own people, going back over the long history of Africa. It has been exacerbated by participation in tax agreements which deprive countries of a tax base.

"You will find there is a taxation agreement between the multinational corporations and the governments, which pays little tax in the country from which resources are being extracted.

"The question then arises, if you were to rely on that source only, what does it do to the development model? Is there a development model left?"

The President said there was a €15bn funding gap between what was pledged by countries, and what was needed. It would, he said, be "disastrous" to use development aid, which is aimed at building economies from the ground up, to tackle humanitarian disasters.

He also alluded to a hypocrisy among some arms-producing members of the UN.

"I think there is a contradiction between arms production and distribution and striking a high moral tone in relation to world hunger.

"This was often brought home to me in previous visits to Africa. Africa doesn't produce armaments. The weapons are coming from countries which have signed up to international peace agreements. I don't think arms control has been successful."

President Higgins also said there was a need to concentrate on the future, particularly in light of the fact that to sustain nine billion people there would need to be a 40pc increase in food production, and that developing countries had to be given the tools to flourish.

"If there has been a massive humanitarian need, there has been an enormous response (from the public). That shouldn't be a substitute for government action," President Higgins said.

He hoped the summit would accept and admit the enormous problems which existed.

"I think it wouldn't be a bad thing if the state of the crisis was recognised. The shortfall in resources is very serious in relation to responding to the humanitarian crisis.

"At the end of November 2015, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) said the fund for displaced people was at 13pc of the level needed.

"Food vouchers have been cut. You could also see an identification of the failures, where countries have not delivered on their pledges.

"We're going to have hard questions about how to implement the sustainable goals and climate agreement.

"Instead of getting a new moment for humanity, you could get a far more complicated version of what is failing. We need a maturity in the discourse that I sometimes think is missing. If we don't do it that way, we're medievalists insulting each other."

Irish Independent

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