The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will take place in Istanbul, Turkey, from May 23-24. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on heads of state and government to deliver a strong message that “we will not accept the erosion of humanity which we see in the world today.” “We must not fail the people who need us, when they need us most,” said the UN chief. There will be seven roundtable sessions over the two days to provide a space for leaders from Member States, civil society and the private sector to focus on a number of challenges. The themes of the roundtables are: Preventing and Ending Conflict; Upholding the Norms that Safeguard Humanity; Leaving No-one Behind; Natural Disasters and Climate Change; From Delivering Aid to Ending Need; Gender Equality; and Investing in Humanity.
All this sounds fine. And this summit fits into a propensity for summitry in recent history: Paris and Copenhagen on climate change; Beijing on women; European leaders’ summits dealing with the refugee crisis. We are used to these high level meetings. But the threshold of our expectations has changed. We are used to declarations, goals for the future presented, pledges to work toward improvement, but we are not sure that the time and energy preparing these meetings is worth the effort and rising expectations. Especially with this one.
The meeting in Istanbul is suspect for several reasons. First, to have a humanity meeting in Turkey at a time when President Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian appears to give legitimacy to a government that has come under increasing criticism, including from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The viability of the EU deal with Turkey on refugees has been called into question with the dismissal of Prime Minister Davutoglu and President Erdogan’s unwillingness to revise domestic laws to guarantee that his actions against terrorism respect fundamental human rights.
Furthermore, the relationship between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Turkey is not cooperative. “Authorities [in Turkey] are not too interested in the organization’s presence in the country,” ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord said in an interview in April with a Russian news outlet. “We have no visibility in Turkey because we don't work in Turkey. We don't have access and we don't work in Turkey specifically," he said. According to Daccord, the ICRC needs permission from Ankara in order to operate in Turkey, adding that the ICRC had made a request, but "so far they are not extremely interested to have us in Turkey where we would like to be.”
According to the ICRC press office: “Currently, the ICRC is not present in Turkey and does not conduct any activities there. The ICRC's office in Turkey was temporarily opened in 2003 to support our operations in Iraq. Given the evolution of the situation in Iraq, the Turkish authorities determined in 2012 that the ICRC had no need to remain in Turkey for the purpose of supporting its Iraq operations. We maintain a regular dialogue with the Turkish authorities on humanitarian issues which we hope to develop further.”
In addition, not all the major actors in humanitarian field, both governmental and civil society, will be present in Istanbul. So far, only 80 states have signed on to attend. (Switzerland will be represented by Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter. Russian President Putin will not attend.) Significantly, Médicins Sans Frontièrs (MSF) has announced that it will also not attend. Having had 75 hospitals managed or sponsored by MSF bombed in the past year – an egregious violation of international humanitarian law - MSF issued a statement on May 5 saying: “However with regret, we have come to the decision to pull out of the summit. We no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations. Instead, the WHS’s focus would seem to be an incorporation of humanitarian assistance into a broader development and resilience agenda. Further, the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to." In a most damning part of the MSF statement, it says: “The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing those systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.”
International humanitarian law exists. States have obligations and responsibilities under conventions and protocols they have signed and ratified.
If the WHS reminds all of these obligations, so much the better. But for now, the reasoning of MSF seems prescient, so much the worse for the victims and those trying to alleviate suffering.