Aid workers demand warring parties abide by humanitarian laws that protect civilians and allow aid to reach them
LONDON, Jan 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid groups struggling to cope with millions uprooted by conflict are hoping the first international summit on humanitarian responses will compel governments to do more to protect civilians, but its chief has warned there will be no quick fix.
The World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in Istanbul in May, intends to push governments, U.N. agencies, humanitarian charities and the private sector to agree on proposals to alleviate global crises more effectively.
Conference organisers have also called for more sustained funding to help meet a record-high U.N. aid appeal for $20.1 billion, amid rising climate-related disasters and the refugee crisis stemming from conflict in the Middle East.
A key demand from aid workers, as diplomacy fails to halt fighting in Syria and Yemen, is for the summit's 5,000 delegates to find ways to ensure warring parties abide by humanitarian laws that protect civilians and allow aid to reach them.
"The summit is a point of departure in getting those in the aid community to work differently, to improve the way we deliver assistance," summit head Antoine Gerard told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
But unlike other global summits, such as last year's Paris climate conference, the conclusions of the humanitarian discussions will be non-binding.
That has sparked concern from campaign groups who say governments are violating humanitarian law by failing to protect civilians caught in the firing line.
Aid and rights charity Oxfam helped draw up proposals for the summit and said it was an opportunity for world leaders to dedicate themselves to a new global effort to shield civilians from the horrors of war.
"Too many governments and other armed groups woefully fail to respect the international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians," said Ed Cairns, senior policy adviser at Oxfam GB.
"The summit's greatest legacy would be a genuine commitment to change this abject failure," he said.
Gerard, who has spent more than 13 years at the U.N.'s humanitarian aid coordination body OCHA, said it was deplorable that "flagrant violations" of humanitarian law, such as failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, were becoming more commonplace.
He said the summit was a chance for states to demonstrate their commitment at the highest level to the rules of war.
But he said it was not the time to lay the blame on any country in particular.
"If the summit points the finger at certain U.N. member states we will not have the power to draw attention to the importance of these laws and the need to abide by them," said Gerard.
Rights groups have been alarmed at the impact of a Saudi-led coalition's military campaign in Yemen, which the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights said appeared to be responsible for a "disproportionate amount" of attacks on civilian areas.
In Syria, where an estimated 250,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, Syrian government and Russian forces and the U.S.-led coalition have caused civilian casualties in their air strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based organisation.
Gerard said the mass displacement caused by wars such as the Syrian conflict would be felt strongly at the summit because it is taking place in Turkey, which shelters more than two million refugees who have fled across the border from Syria.
"Many U.N. member states realise the major flow of displaced people from Syria is unprecedented and that host countries need greater support," said Gerard, who is French.
The United Nations official said he had witnessed the limits of the humanitarian system from his time working for Medecins sans Frontieres across the Middle East, and, memorably, as a U.N. official at the height of the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region in 2003.
"It's more than ten years since I went to Darfur, but I see there has been no change for people living in the refugee camps there," said Gerard.
"The point of the summit is to question how we can do better, to increase support to the refugees."
Some of those involved in shaping the summit's agenda fear it will be dominated by the United Nations despite their calls for wider participation from NGOs and aid recipients.
"The current approach will not address the fact that aid is still implemented by an elite club of organisations and governments, with too little involvement of its target communities, said Nick van Praag, director of Ground Truth Solutions, which analyses the impact of charitable aid.
Gerard said this concern was being addressed.
"The summit is a call to action for all those involved in humanitarian practice, with a key demand to place people at the centre," the conference chief said.
He said the agenda of the conference will become clearer when the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, publishes a statement on the summit in early February.
(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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