Keeping our promises to leave no one behind: accountability at the World Humanitarian Summit

Wednesday, 16 March 2016 17:32 GMT

Across South Sudan, 6.1 million people are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance. Photo © Jason Seagle/Counterpart Images, Action Against Hunger, South Sudan

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has released his much anticipated report for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit that will take place in Istanbul on May 23-24. In a time of unprecedented challenges, this historic event will call on global leaders—and citizens—to renew their commitment to take action to alleviate help the millions of people affected by war and disaster.

As CEO of Action Against Hunger USA, an international humanitarian organization, I am aware of the huge challenges the humanitarian system faces: lack of political will to resolve humanitarian crises that last for decades and the inability to prevent new ones; lack of protection for our staff and the people we support; lack of appropriate funding to partner with local communities to deliver long-term solutions.  The world has failed to respond effectively to the rising number – and changing dynamics – of humanitarian crises. The Secretary General of the UN recognized this when he proposed the World Humanitarian Summit three years ago.  

However, with the alarming upsurge in human suffering and the unprecedented threats to international humanitarian law that we have witnessed in the past few years, I strongly believe world leaders must go beyond the Secretary General’s recommendations if we are to make tangible progress in “leaving no one behind” and truly transform humanitarian action.

A world free from suffering
Ban Ki-moon's report outlines his vision: The world must collectively act to alleviate human suffering, ensure respect for humanitarian principles, and work with communities to ensure that the most vulnerable people receive the assistance they need.

The UN Secretary General outlines five core responsibilities around which the world must take action. Unsurprisingly, the first focuses on the need to prevent and end conflicts. For far too long, the collective lack of political will to solve conflicts has placed a significant burden on humanitarian actors to respond to the suffering of people living through war and violence.  As conflicts rage on—sometimes for decades—and new ones begin, the humanitarian community is stretched to the limit.  

There is a direct correlation between prolonged conflict and hunger. Populations displaced by violence often lose not only their homes and assets, but also their ability to meet their basic survival needs. As a humanitarian organization, Action Against Hunger’s mandate is to uphold principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence in conflicts or disasters, and to deliver assistance to alleviate suffering and promote nutrition security. We welcome recognition that political actors bear primary responsibility for ending humanitarian crises. But those who have the power to drive diplomacy and political solutions are not sufficiently engaged. We urge governments to act decisively to find political settlements: this is absolutely critical to our work.

Humanitarian principles must not be overlooked
The second responsibility focuses on the need to uphold the international laws and norms that protect people during conflict. Action Against Hunger is deeply concerned about the steady erosion of respect for international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles, which has had a devastating impact on our staff and the people we serve in the past decade.  

In conflict situations, we witness countless civilians who are subject to violations of international law. Actors with multiple interests are becoming more common in the field, and we are worried about the growing confusion of the political, security, and humanitarian agendas. This phenomenon is materializing, in one hand, into obstacles and routine denials of access to vulnerable populations that need life-saving assistance.  In the other hand, our staff are harassed and killed by state and non-state armed actors without accountability. This erosion of respect for humanitarian principles is driving the urgency of our advocacy, through the World Humanitarian Summit, for specific mechanisms to enhance the protection of aid workers.

The success of the World Humanitarian Summit will be judged on whether states and non-state actors fully respect international law and protect civilians, including humanitarian staff, and on whether participating leaders create mechanisms that strengthen their capacity for humanitarian response.  

Leaving no one behind
The third responsibility is a commitment to reach everyone in need of assistance. Action Against Hunger supports this call for greater efforts to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people have a voice, as well as access to protection and assistance, and that they are active participants in meeting the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The idea of leaving no one behind resonates with us.  The people we work with — women, children, adolescents, refugees, and the internally displaced — are most vulnerable to the impact of crises. The humanitarian system must be inclusive of their participation and needs to allow for effective longer-term development.

The fourth responsibility focuses on the need to reinforce local capacities and to establish better linkages between humanitarian and development assistance. We believe supporting local actors is fundamental to sustainable impact.

Investing in commitments
The fifth responsibility focuses on making political, institutional, and financial investments to deliver on the previous commitments.  We are concerned by the widening gap between humanitarian needs and available funding.

There is also a need for stakeholders in conflict zones to ensure that humanitarian actors have access to populations requiring assistance. It is imperative that stakeholders uphold this commitment to allow— and facilitate — humanitarian actors to reach victims and deliver rapid, appropriate assistance

Translating words into action
While we support much of what is outlined in the UN Secretary General’s report, we are deeply concerned about how governments in particular will translate these words into action. The report fails to propose or define a mechanism that would effectively monitor progress and hold governments accountable if they fail to uphold their commitments at the World Humanitarian Summit—or to other global agreements.

We urge leaders participating in the World Humanitarian Summit to establish a public monitoring mechanism to track progress and set deadlines for their commitments.

Too often, “honor systems” alone fail to compel governments to follow through. Empty promises will lead to a continuation of the status quo—which is not only inexcusable, but also evidence of our collective failure.