Weapons and Wounds: The UN sorts its Conflict and Humanitarian Dependencies, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Aug

Eliasson and WHD

Friday was World Humanitarian Day, honored throughout the UN system.   In New York Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson led a moving tribute to fallen UN staff, whom he honored as “the most committed of the committed,” specifically referencing those killed in an attack in Baghdad over 20 years ago.  There was also an evening spectacular during which governments were urged once again to honor pledges to support humanitarian assistance, pledges that as UN Relief Chief Stephen O’Brien has noted in many Security Council meetings, are far more numerous than their fulfillment. Clearly it is easier to make promises than honor them, for states no less than for the rest of us.

This pledging gap stands in sharp contrast to the unrelenting work of medical and relief personnel in some of the most devastated conflict zones worldwide.   We have been privileged to attend many briefings, in and out of the Security Council, by representatives from the White Helmets in Syria as well as from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which operates not only in Syria but in Yemen and other unimaginably stressful environments.

While they dig traumatized children from rubble and amputate their irreparably damaged limbs in makeshift medical facilities, the bombs continue to drop, on top of them as well as around them.   The workers themselves have become targets; at the very least the scruples of international law that mandate that warring states avoid civilian targets have lost their sting. More and more, victims have little say in how these conflicts evolve and little to gain once (if) they are finally resolved.  More and more, relief agents like those of MSF face existential threats merely because they have the courage to care.

There is now talk around the UN that the White Helmets are a virtual shoo-in for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

We would welcome such a well-deserved honoring.  And yet, there is an uneasy feeling within us and many others, in part due to the fact that, as MSF stated as part of its distancing from the Istanbul World Humanitarian Summit, not nearly enough attention is being paid to the grave sacrifices and often needless dangers that diverse first responders to tragedy must now endure.

But it is more than that; indeed there is a growing sense that conflict and relief have become too dependent on one another, are too intertwined in their operations and expectations, that relief efforts are less about cultivating what one commentator recently referred to as “a shared humanity” and more about setting up bureaucracies that spend vast sums without also critiquing the system that breeds violence, drought and dangerous climate events on a formerly unimaginable scale.

Too many of the large relief agencies, it seems, are quite willing to be seen as the “benign face” of an otherwise ugly pursuit, with massive fundraising and resulting “interventions” based on tales of misery that they can and should do more to cut off at the source.  It is not by accident that the first “core responsibility” listed by the UN Secretary General in his “One humanity: shared responsibility” is “political leadership to prevent and end conflicts.” This is leadership that all of us, including the institutional beneficiaries of what Simone Lucatello of Instituto Mora and others frequently refer to as “humanitarianism,” must insist upon with greater urgency.

As many other colleagues worldwide such as Kenya’s Paul Okumu have commented, we are now at the point when we need more activists and fewer NGOs, more people devoted to stronger communities and fewer devoted to large-scale institutional maintenance.  Moreover, we need both activists and NGOs who are willing to confront the architects of violence and environmental destruction with the ultimate futility of humanitarian efforts.  We simply cannot bandage the mistakes of global policymakers.   We can’t make it “good enough” so that governments don’t have to feel so badly about initiating yet another round of deadly conflict, another license to ruin what precious little remains of our formerly climate-healthy and biodiverse planet.

The agonizing work of the White Helmets gives them a unique perspective here.  Should they win the Peace Prize, and even if they don’t, they have both the savvy and the gravitas to remind the rest of us that humanitarians do not keep the peace, do not stop arms transfers, do not negotiate political settlements to disputes. Unless that message is steadily and convincingly conveyed –- with conviction and without regard for funding impacts and branding opportunities — we will continue in a cycle where large NGOs continue to be paid handsomely in a mostly futile effort to clean up after messes that, in many more than a few instances, should never have happened in the first place.

Two other events this week highlighted for us the ways in which we believe “humanitarianism” needs to evolve.  First, we watched with interest as a majority of states attending the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament in Geneva — as reported by Reaching Critical Will and others — indicated their support for negotiations in the UNGA First Committee towards a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.  The justification for this initiative is largely a humanitarian one – modern nuclear weapons are so powerful, so devastating in their effects that any humanitarian system we could envision would be inadequate to respond.   If the human tragedy of Yemen is beyond our capacity to manage, and it currently seems to be, the consequences from nuclear explosions can barely be fathomed.

And then there was a long, insight-filled Skype call that we were honored to have this week with a room filled with young women activists mostly from Cameroon.   They asked many questions about what the UN does and why we do things the way we do them here; why we don’t reach out more, listen more, use more examples from their lives and fewer from our own?  And then it was time for my question:  “If you could make one change in the lives of the women you know, what would that change be?”

One by one, they came to the front to share their hopes: more women in politics and other places where laws and norms are developed; more girls at higher levels of education; an end to subordinations based on income, law or tradition; increased access to financing and other public goods.  And finally, there was a plea for the lowering of barriers that separate women from each other and from their better selves.   Their quest for that elusive ”shared humanity” within peaceful, inclusive communities, settings that demonstrate capacity and skill regarding resilience to conflict and climate threats, requires each of them to change and grow as well.

These are the lessons we seek to promote: that humanitarian response is ultimately inadequate to prevent, end or recover from modern conflict and that communities and their leadership can play a more central role in responding to local victims while ensuring fewer victims in the first instance.

The humanitarian community already has many burdens to navigate, but we urge adding another one – the decoupling of what have become the “strange bedfellows” of conflict and humanitarian assistance.  Together, we must continue to address human need but do so in a way that does not enable political leaders to postpone or push aside their conflict-related responsibilities.  We cannot allow committed energy from humanitarians to be used to make the onset or continuation of conflict any more palatable.

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