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BLOG, International Relations

World Humanitarian Summit – Wanted: Humanity

Written by Clare Ferguson and Marta Latek,

Humanity sign

© gustavofrazao / Fotolia

Whether the situation in Turkey was a factor in the choice of venue for the first ever United Nations World Humanitarian Summit on 23-24 May 2016, is unconfirmed. According to the European Commission, however, with some 3.1 million refugees on its territory, the country is currently the largest host of refugee populations in the world. Nevertheless, the timing of the conference is opportune, as some 125 million people are currently in need of humanitarian aid worldwide – a number which has doubled in a decade. Almost 60 million people are currently displaced, 40 million of those within their own countries – the highest number since World War II.

Major factors in humanitarian disasters include natural catastrophe, conflict, as well as climate change (which also drives some of the conflict). The European Parliament estimates climate change alone could displace a billion people by 2050. Whilst working to tackle these ‘multi-dimensional root causes’ of displacement, the European Union focuses its international humanitarian response on providing emergency relief, with a budget of over €6 billion for the period 2014-2020.

See also the Topical Digest on the ‘Humanitarian Summit

This sum puts the combined Member States of the EU ahead of all other international donors of humanitarian aid, including the USA as largest single state donor. However, Western states are not the only providers of humanitarian aid, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also donating considerable sums. Recently, due to the increase in conflict in the Middle East, Turkey has also become a leading emergent donor, as well as a recipient of humanitarian funding to support refugees fleeing from Syria. The European Commission estimates that between 2011 and November 2015 Turkey provided more than €6.5 billion in assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey, although these figures are contested. However, the Summit comes at a delicate time for EU-Turkey relations, with negotiations over the current migration crisis leading to concern that the bigger picture of international humanitarian need will be sacrificed to discussion of the most immediate problems.

In announcing the summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon underlined five core responsibilities for the international community: preventing and ending conflict; respecting the rules of war; protecting the most vulnerable and balancing the needs of both genders; moving from delivering aid to ending the need for it; and investing in people on the ground. Parliament particularly welcomes the focus on prioritising humanitarian action and operational efficiency and on better coordination and partnerships with emerging donors, based on common adherence to international humanitarian law. With respect to assisting states to change and to work differently towards a better outcome for their populations, the Parliament is keen to see the summit link to the wider development agenda, particularly to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to the COP21 climate change targets. Indeed, more flexibility and greater coherence between humanitarian and development aid is considered as important as increasing the amount of funding available.

The EU is thus committed to marking the summit as a first step in working towards a fundamental shift in humanitarian policy, one which recognises the international dimension in its entirety and focuses on creating a more flexible and efficient response to human catastrophe. The Council concluded, on 12 May 2016, that the WHS must bring about transformative change and decisive action by all stakeholders, reiterating the EU commitment to the ‘humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, and to preventing politicisation and instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid’. Nevertheless, with the withdrawal of major NGO player Médecins sans frontières on the grounds that the summit will fail to produce real action against states which violate humanitarian principles (targeting civilians and medical facilities in particular), as well as Russian attempts to downplay its importance, it remains to be seen whether the summit will result in a truly global consensus on humanitarian action.

Further reading

World Humanitarian Summit 2016, Marta Latek (also a podcast)

Funding gap: a challenge for the World Humanitarian Summit, Alina Dobreva and Marta Latek

Turkish humanitarian policy: An emerging donor, Philippe Perchoc

Japan’s humanitarian assistance, Enrico D’Ambrogio

The African Union’s humanitarian policy, Eric Pichon

United States humanitarian aid policy, Ionel Zamfir

China’s humanitarian aid policy and practice, Gisela Grieger

Brazil’s humanitarian policy, Eleni Lazarou

Russia’s humanitarian aid policy, Martin Russell

Humanitarian policy of the Gulf States, Marta Latek


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