By Rodney Reynolds
The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed as far back as 2012, failed to meet its lofty expectations despite four years of consultations with 23,000 people in over 150 countries.
“This is a 21st century United Nations gathering,” Ban boasted to delegates in his opening remarks. But the two-day summit, which concluded May 24, did not generate any significant funding nor did it receive the whole-hearted political support of the UN’s Big Five – the UK, U.S., France, China and Russia – whose leaders were conspicuous by their absence.
Besides UK, U.S. and France, even the remaining G-7 leaders were missing in action: heads of government from Canada, Italy and Japan shied away from the summit. Only German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Istanbul to represent the world’s seven industrialized democracies.
A visibly-disappointed Secretary-General was forced to sound optimistic even under the most trying circumstances: “But the absence of the leaders of the five permanent Security Council members from the World Humanitarian Summit does not provide an excuse for inaction,” he said.
He expressed “disappointment” that only the German head of government represented the G-7, whose leaders are meeting in Japan May 26-27, with the UN Secretary-General as a guest of the Japanese government.
The Istanbul summit was also touted as “an important first step” towards an upcoming high-level meeting of world leaders, September 19 in New York, to address the refugee crisis.
Still, 173 countries participated in the humanitarian summit which was attended by 60 world leaders, mostly from the developing world.
The summit’s biggest single achievement was to focus on one of the world’s most pressing problems: the rising humanitarian emergencies, triggered both by growing military conflicts and increased natural disasters, which have displaced nearly 130 million people worldwide reducing them either to the status of refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs).
According to the UN, the most severe humanitarian crises are in the Middle East and Africa, including in Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Speaking at the Doha Forum in the Qatari capital, just two days ahead of the summit, Ban said vulnerable people across the world are rightly asking: “Where is the humanity?”
“Our funding appeal remains woefully underfunded. And where is the solidarity?,” he asked.
Turkey was probably the most appropriate venue for the humanitarian summit since it has played a significant role in alleviating the ongoing crisis. Of the five million Syrians who have fled the country since the civil war began in 2011, over 2.7 million are now in Turkey, making it the country hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world today.
Across the border, in northern Syria, nearly four million people rely on cross-border aid delivery. However, less than a quarter of the funding needed this year to help Syrians and the communities hosting them has been contributed.
Sara Pantuliano, Managing Director at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), said: “The commitments made at the Summit have fallen short in substance and ambition and there is little clarity about how pledges that have been made will be taken forward and turned into reality.”
She said there have been exciting initiatives launched on the fringes, but it has been a missed opportunity to tackle the major problems at the heart of the formal humanitarian system.
“’With all the talk about putting people at the centre of humanitarian action, there has been little to suggest the main players will put aside their institutional interests for those of people struggling to survive in crises,” Pantuliano added.
Meanwhile, ActionAid, one of the active human rights organizations battling the humanitarian crisis, said it was “dismayed” by the poor representation of women’s voices at the summit. “It’s truly disheartening to see an agenda so clearly dominated by men,” said Michelle Higelin, Co-Chair of ActionAid’s International Humanitarian Platform.
If the international humanitarian system could hold a mirror to itself, she said, it would clearly see a need for radical change and the urgent need to shift its male-dominated power base. “Ignoring gender equality in the limited space made available at the Istanbul Summit does little to build confidence that this is more than a talk fest and that the Agenda for Humanity just words on paper.”
This despite the fact that the UN Secretary-General insisted that it was “crucial to bring more voices to the table.”
“Women have a vital role to play, not just as recipients of protection but as agents of peace,” he said, ahead of the summit.
According to the UN, there were at least two positive outcomes of the summit.
The so-called Vulnerable 20 or V20 Group of Finance Ministers launched a new global partnership with UN agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank.
The partnership aims to strengthen preparedness capacity in the 20 countries so that they can attain the minimum level of readiness by 2020, for future risks, mainly caused mostly by climate change.
The UN also joined hands with the business community to launch a major global network to facilitate business engagement in crisis situations, including through the pre-positioning of supplies as well as providing resources, knowledge and expertise to disaster prevention.
According to the UN, the summit reaffirmed the five core responsibilities of the Agenda for Humanity: political leadership to prevent and end conflict; uphold norms that safeguard humanity; leave No One Behind; change people’s lives, from delivering aid to ending need; and invest in humanity.
Perhaps the last word came from Pierre Bertrand, a former director of the New York Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who said: “At the end, though, everyone should coalesce around the premise so frequently invoked at the UN Security Council by managers of humanitarian operations: There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian crises, only political ones.”