Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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UN: World Humanitarian Summit

World Humanitarian Summit logo

On May 22-23 the first–ever World Humanitarian Summit took place in Istanbul, Turkey. This article was published in the July-August 2016 issue of NewsNotes.

2015 was a remarkable year for international diplomacy and multilateralism, culminating in two major compacts on climate change and the global development agenda: the Paris climate agreement and the UN sustainable development goals. In 2016, international efforts focus on an area that will likely prove even more contentious and where the international system is fraying badly under the weight of current crises: the system of providing humanitarian relief in response to both man-made and natural disasters.  

The World Humanitarian Summit was notable for its attempt at inclusion. Nearly 9,000 people – aid workers, civil society professionals, small and large CEOs and NGOs, celebrities and state leaders, including Angela Merkel – attended. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the summit a “turning point” in a longer process of overhauling the international community’s woefully inadequate response to humanitarian crises – but that will depend on following through on the nearly 3,000 commitments made at the conference.    

To prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit, organizers consulted with more than 23,000 stakeholders – heads of state and government, representatives of affected communities,  aid organizations, global opinion leaders, private sector leaders and others from 151 countries –in what some called an 18-month conversation. Their report on the consultation process , “Restoring Humanity: Global Voices Calling for Action,” champions  a vision of a world whose “fundamental humanity is re-affirmed and restored, where no one confronted by crises dies who can be saved, ” – in essence,  a world that puts people and principles at the heart of humanitarianism.  This inclusive consultation process resulted in five major areas for action, each presenting an ambitious goal for future humanitarian action: dignity, safety, resilience, partnership, finance.

The lengthy consultative process uncovered many tensions and opposing views. Unlike the UN-sponsored meetings on climate change and the sustainable development goals, the World Humanitarian Summit was not an intergovernmental meeting with a formal negotiation process between UN member states.  Some felt the process of multi-stakeholder participation led to mixed expectations about what the summit would achieve. Would it be just a feedback mechanism for voicing concerns about humanitarian interventions?  How would the summit engage with those who are tasked with implementing its recommendations?  

Another issue that produced tensions was the debate over humanitarian values and what humanitarian action means and how it is related to development assistance. Throughout the consultation process some pushed to remove the distinction between humanitarian and development assistance. This irked some humanitarians.

After the consultation period, Ki Moon issued a preparatory document entitled “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility,” in which he put forth an eloquent and compelling account of the current challenges to humanity arising out of the many humanitarian disasters of our present time. For Ki Moon terror and the deliberate brutalization of women and children, aerial bombardments and indiscriminate shelling of residential neighborhoods, those fleeing war and and destruction and millions on the move in search of a better life are all too familiar realities for large sections of humanity.  The present international humanitarian aid system is buckling under the pressure from these realities. The world needs a new blueprint.  

In late May  the 9,000  participants  of  the World Humanitarian Summit debated the proposals made by Ban Ki Moon in “One Humanity.” Ki Moon calls for the articulation of a vision for change that is grounded in the key value that unites us: our common humanity.  He outlines in detail certain core responsibilities  critical to delivering a better kind of humanitarian service for humanity: (a) political leadership to prevent and end conflicts; (b) uphold the norms that safeguard humanity; (c) leave no one behind; (d) change people’s lives —from delivering aid to ending need; and (e) invest in humanity. In the final documents of the summit each core responsibility is further defined in terms of core commitments.

In a summary of the summit’s proposals entitled “The Chair’s Summary” the secretary-general declared that “the participants have made it emphatically clear that humanitarian assistance alone can neither adequately address nor sustainably reduce the needs of over 130 million of the world’s most vulnerable people. A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention of conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts together.”