"A Fig Leaf of Good Intentions" - The Age of Humanitarian Inaction

Not since the end of World War II have so many people been uprooted by war and displaced by conflict and natural disaster. With more than 60 million refugees worldwide, of whom 38 million have been compelled to leave their native countries, the gap between urgent humanitarian need and the willingness of wealthy countries to pay for it grows wider by the second.

On May 23-24th, the United Nations will convene its first Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul - a meeting that will either deliver real assistance in dollars, or flood the world with empty words. Delegates from 153 countries and more than 23,000 representatives of civil society groups and the private sector are expected to cover an ambitious agenda. But their discussions will only begin to scratch the surface of the planet's most urgent needs.

There will be talk about creating a new "grand bargain" to assure the coordination and accountability of donor-driven humanitarian aid. Currently, a $25 billion gap exists between the global needs of 125 million victims of natural disaster and conflict and the funds available to assist them. There will be sessions about "taking the long-term view," which will attempt to link humanitarian assistance to long-term development funding. This is not a new conversation, but a variation on one from that has been a part of most conversations about security and development since the 1990s. In Istanbul, participants will examine fragile states, poverty reduction, and creating innovative public private partnerships. And there will be the lament about how intractable conflicts remain one of the greatest threats to any gains made in reducing global poverty.

While the Summit is clearly needed as a forum for innovative ideas, the meeting is surrounded by controversy. Those who attend are all but united in their efforts, let alone their mission. The event even runs the risk of becoming yet another talk fest that will avoid the creation of real-world enforcement mechanisms to protect civilians, a sustainable plan to help those in need. The most urgent item of all will only be mentioned in passing: the application of international humanitarian law to protect civilians and aid agency workers who are caught in conflict. The mere mention of this topic will be too contentious for many of the nations that send delegates to the Summit, given how frequently the laws of war have gone by the wayside in so many recent conflicts. Between 2012 and 2014, the Red Cross documented nearly 2,400 attacks against health workers, patients, medical facilities, and medical transport in just 11 countries.

The announcement last week that Doctors Without Borders, the medical NGO known by its French acronym MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres), had decided not to participate in the Humanitarian Summit is the clearest indication of why this international convening will not result in an effective call to action. In a press statement, MSF noted that "the summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions allow[ing] these systematic violations by states above all, to be ignored. . . The summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to." The bombing of the hospital in Aleppo, Syria, which killed 50 physicians, patients and staff, underscores the current inability of the international community to apply the laws of war.

On May 3, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to remind warring parties everywhere of the rules, and to demand protection for those who provide health care and accountability for violators. The measure urged member states to conduct independent investigations and prosecute those found responsible for violations "in accordance with domestic and international law." Because the Istanbul meeting is not part of a formal intergovernmental process like the recent UN Climate meetings in Paris, the outcome will not achieve any binding commitment by those states who attend it. So we are left with a two-day talk fest, at best, that will certainly raise the profile of a humanitarian assistance system in drastic need of a new vision.

It will take the combined will of civil society organizations and the private sector to ensure that governments actually do something to address the current crisis, while having the courage to go beyond resolutions of condemnation and take on the failure of international humanitarian law to protect civilians. Any such initiative must include resources to pursue war-crimes charges against the perpetrators of hospital bombings, as well as against government actors who deny access to food assistance to populations under siege. Finding creative forms of jurisdiction will also send a message to non-state actors that they, too, cannot hide from the law. The World Humanitarian Summit will inform on the status quo, as outlined in a new report, World at Risk, Humanitarian Response at a Crossroads.

But the creation of a truly new vision for humanitarian action will require a different type of coalition. What that coalition may look like very much depend on how the United States, along with partner nations, chooses to conceive, adopt, and enforce new and binding principles for a 21st century interdependent world. This will require doing what has been desperately needed, but avoided since the end of the Cold War in 1989: a new global coalition of those who are willing to revisit the principles of international law in an interdependent world, to advance -- and finance -- the urgently needed agenda that the world's poorest and most conflict-affected victims deserve.