By Rene Wadlow
The World Humanitarian Summit organized by the United Nations will open on 23 May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. The aim of the conference in the words of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki moon is to see what should be done “to end conflict, alleviate suffering and reduce risk and vulnerability.” Turkey is on the front lines of the consequences of armed conflict with nearly three million refugees from Syria and Iraq as well as its own attacks against Kurds. Turkey has entered into agreements with the States of the European Union concerning the flow of refugees through Turkey to Europe − agreements that have raised controversy and concern from human rights organizations.
Given the policies of the Turkish government, some non-governmental organizations have refused to participate in protest. Doctors Without Borders − one of the best-known of the relief organizations − has pulled out. However, the Association of World Citizens will participate while working for a settlement of Kurdish issues at the same time.
As with all UN conferences, there has been a good deal of earlier discussion. These discussions within UN agencies, national governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have led to a synthesis document which sets out the agenda and the main lines for discussion in Istanbul. It is the Secretary-General’s report for the World Humanitarian Summit One humanity: shared responsibility. (A70/709). There is a useful overview of the current world situation of refugees, internally-displaced people and of people on the move to escape persistent poverty. There are also warnings about future displacement of people due to the consequences of climate change.
As the report highlights “The effort necessary to prevent and resolve conflict will be massive but can be broken down into sets of core actions. They include demonstrating courageous leadership, acting early, investing in stability and ensuring broad participation by affected people and other stakeholders.”
As with so many UN reports, there is a call for courageous political leadership and a mobilization of political will. If there were more courageous political leadership, we might not have the scope and intensity of the problems we now face. There is a limited amount that we can do to provide courageous political leadership at the national level. Rather we have to ask what can we do within non-governmental organizations in which we are active to resolve conflicts and deal with some of the consequences of the conflicts such as refugee flows.
I see three areas, outlined in the UN report as agenda items, that we can develop on a non-governmental level. The UN report sets out the values that also guide our NGO actions. “To prevent and alleviate human suffering, to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human person − these are the most important humanitarian principles.
The first issue for NGO action is to strengthen respect for the laws of war − now more commonly called Humanitarian Law. The recent and wide-spread attacks against medical facilities and medical personnel indicate an erosion of the laws of war. There is an urgent need to strengthen respect for the laws of war. This is an issue on which NGOs and the media can focus. Much humanitarian law has already been codified into the Geneva Conventions and other treaties. States which have not ratified should be encouraged to do so, but States must also be encouraged to live up to their word.
The second area is risk analysis and the publication of findings. All governments do a certain amount of risk analysis and contingency planning, especially the military. However, they make their findings public only when it serves their interests and States give little information as to how the analysis was made. NGOs along with academic institutions can provide analysis from open sources and indicate growing tension areas − what I have called “storm warnings”. For storm warnings to be effective, they need to reach as many people as possible and especially those in the path of the storm. International support for conflict resolution efforts must be made early and in a continuing way. If a storm does not break out quickly, it does not mean that the “storm-creating factors” have gone away and that attention can be put on other possible conflict areas. There need to be constant awareness of the way that tensions may form.
The third issue is training and preparation. There are a relatively large number of people working for (or having worked for) relief operations. They are able to set up tents, field kitchens, field clinics and water supplies. There may be need for more but there is not much room for innovation. However, teaching in refugee camps, dealing with longer-range psychological damage are areas where there is less experience and also less agreement as to what is to be done.
We can wish creative energies for the participants in the World Humanitarian Summit. Hopefully, the broad outline of actions necessary will be set, but the real work of all international conferences comes in the follow up.