Obama at the UN: Unfulfilled Promise

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

Sept. 20, 2016 –  U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday for the eight and final time, delivering a lackluster speech, noticeable mostly for the sparsity of applause lines – in stark contrast to his 2009 maiden speech.

That speech seven years ago was constantly interrupted by applause and cheers for the newly-elected U.S. president who promised to herald in a new era of U.S. engagement with the world, music to the ears of UN diplomats and secretariat officials after eight years of George W. Bush and five years after his disastrous decision to invade Iraq without a Security Council resolution.

Obama told delegates in 2009 that he would close Guantanamo, responsibly end the Iraq war, work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and take action on climate change.

One the latter two, he has shown commitment and desire. The Iran deal, while far from perfect, appears to have, at least temporarily, halted Tehran’s quest for an atomic weapon. The U.S still remains a non-signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, one of nine countries preventing it from going into force.

On climate change, Obama’s rhetoric has been strong but his actions less so. Much is made of the Paris Agreement, but it is just that, a non-binding agreement that lacks the force of a treaty.

The Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains open, albeit with less that 100 detainees. Nevertheless, it remains open and some detainees have spent more than a dozen years there without charge or trial – in fact, Guantanamo has been open for longer under Obama than under Bush.

The U.S. officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but has been re-involved there since 2014 supporting the Iraqi government’s fight against ISIS. Despite the different nature of the operation, many aspects of the 2003-11 Iraq war remain, including an insurgency and armed sectarian conflict. The decision to hastily withdraw from Iraq in 2011 has drawn criticism that it left a security void that was exploited by ISIS.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Obama called for a Palestinian state during his 2010 UN address but a year later vowed to veto a statehood bid by the Palestinians at the UN.

Where Obama has taken decisive action, such as in Libya, the outcome has been mayhem. Mandated to protect Libyan civilians using all means necessary, the US along with Arab and European allies ousted Gaddafi but failed to plan for the aftermath. The country now has two competing parliaments while another group controls the ports from where Libya exports its oil. The chaos also allowed ISIS gain a foothold in the country and it has become a major transit route for migrants seeking to make the dangerous crossing into Europe.

From the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, Obama insisted that Assad must step down and in 2012 he said that if Syria used chemical weapons that would cross a “red line.” Five years later Assad remains in power and continues to use chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

While there were no easy options for resolving the Syria conflict, some countries at the UN, friendly to the US, suggest that the insistence by the US, along with France and the UK, that Assad step down prevented a solution, albeit an imperfect one, given Russia’s stance that Assad’s fate should be decided by a national poll. The more cynical inside the UN, say that the US, along with France and the UK, always knew that insisting Assad step down was never going to be viable and the status quo would continue - while giving the appearance that the Western powers were on the side of the Syrian people.

The U.S. also championed the cause of South Sudan independence, which was achieved in 2011. Yet, the breakup of Sudan has seen the misery continue for the South Sudanese people, with an estimated more than 50,000 killed in the past five years. Despite that many of the killings can be attributed to government forces, the U.S. remains opposed to an arms embargo on the country.

On the global refugee crisis, the U.S. president has been strong on rhetoric but short on action. A mere 10,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S., which is less than the 13,000 admitted by Singapore and far less than the 600,000 admitted to Germany.

The partisanship and gridlock that characterize U.S. domestic politics are responsible for some of Obama’s failures, particularly on closing Guantanamo, ratifying the CTBT, the Disabilities Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But that aside, despite his charisma and likability, Obama has lacked leadership and decisiveness in confronting global challenges in what is still a U.S.-led world order.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Doubts Raised Over Georgieva’s Qualifications for Secretary-General

kristalina_georgieva_7
Sept. 15, 2016 – Speculation continues to mount that Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is the current EU budget commissioner, will be nominated for the post of UN secretary-general by a grouping of countries including Croatia and Hungary.

Her compatriot, Irina Bokova, the current UNESCO director-general, was Sofia’s choice, but Bokova’s results, in the four straw polls to date, show her with an average of five discourage votes, and that she is regarded as Russia’s preferred candidate is not likely to see her curry favor with veto-wielding Britain, France and the U.S.

Before the race for next SG got started in earnest, the widely-held view inside the UN was that Ban Ki-moon’s successor should be a woman – the first in the UN’s history, and that she should hail from Eastern Europe, the only UN regional group not to have held the post.

Results from fourth straw poll

Despite her laudable background, including a career with the World Bank and two EU commissioner posts – prior to her current assignment she was the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, Georgieva is seen as lacking both UN and diplomatic experience.

Of the ten current candidates, all have either held, or currently hold, positions inside the UN or have served as their country’s foreign minister – with a few having done both, while Helen Clark and Antonio Guterres both served as their country’s prime minister before their senior UN appointments.

Next week’s high-level segment of the General Assembly is expected to include high-level talks on the margins about charting a way forward in finding a successor to Ban, and if Georgieva is to be nominated then it seems that would have to happen next week at the latest. Some Security Council members have indicated that it is already to late for a new entry to the race.

Whatever the outcome from talks next week, one thing is for sure – the race is far from over.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related Stories: Veto-Wielding China Says Supports Malcorra for Next SG

Helen Clark to Announce Candidacy for UN Secretary-General Race

Still Seven Candidates for Next UN Secretary-General Three Weeks Before Interviews Begin

Race for Next UN Secretary-General Taking Shape

Natalia Gherman: Could Moldova’s Foreign Minister be the Next UN Secretary-General

 

Veto-Wielding China Says Supports Malcorra for Next SG

Screenshot 2016-09-06 at 3.54.44 PM

Sept. 6, 2016 – Susana Malcorra’s campaign to become the next UN secretary-general received a boost over the weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly endorsing the Argentine foreign minister’s bid in a meeting with his Buenos Aires counterpart Mauricio Macri.

Jinping told Macri that Beijing would “support” her candidacy when the pair met on the sidelines of the G20 summit, according to a report in the Argentine daily La Nacion.

Malcorra came in fifth in the recent Security Council straw poll with seven encourage, seven discourage and 1 no opinion.

Screenshot 2016-09-06 at 3.34.02 PM
Malcorra’s bid is still seen as having an outside chance given the high number of discourage votes but with Russia said to be refusing to budge in its opposition to front-runner Antonio Guterres, China may be trying to galvanize support for Ban Ki-moon’s former chief-of-staff.

That she hails from the Global South, one of only two candidates – the other fellow Latin American Christina Figueres – will put her in good stead with China, and indeed with the majority of UN member states.

Malcorra is also seen as the favorite of the United States, who are said to view her as a steady pair of hands. Opposition comes from the UK, who went to war with Argentina in 1982 over the disputed Falkland islands.

Guterres, the former high commissioner for refugees, has seen his number of discourage votes rise to three since the first straw poll on July 21. While widely admired inside the UN for his capable leadership of UNHCR during the biggest refugee crisis in the agency’s history, it looks increasingly likely that Russia will veto the former Portuguese prime minister’s bid.

During his reign as PM, he was a strong advocate of NATO expansion and EU expansion. There has never been a secretary-general from a NATO country with former secretaries-general from Europe, Dag Hammarskjold and Kurt Waldheim, hailing from neutral Sweden and Austria respectively.

The UN’s first secretary-general Norway’s Trygve Lie was appointed prior to the founding of NATO. Lie, in fact, saw both NATO and the Soviet Union’s network of alliances as a threat to the United Nations.

Another straw poll is set for Sept. 9 and none of the ten remaining candidates look like vacating the race, with each calculating that Russia’s apparent unwillingness to support Guterres will see a change of dynamic in the race.

Whether that means mobilizing behind a candidate that has the support of both the US and China, or the late entry of a compromise candidate, is anyone’s guess, but Malcorra’s odds have shortened.

If elected, Malcorra would be the first woman to hold the post of UN secretary-general and the second Latin-American.

Prior to her appointment as chef-de-cabinet to Ban, Malcorra was under-secretary for field operations for UN peacekeeping. She was appointed Argentina’s foreign minister in Nov. 2015.

- Denis Fitzgeald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related Stories: Helen Clark to Announce Candidacy for UN Secretary-General Race

Still Seven Candidates for Next UN Secretary-General Three Weeks Before Interviews Begin

Race for Next UN Secretary-General Taking Shape

 Natalia Gherman: Could Moldova’s Foreign Minister be the Next UN Secretary-General

UN Votes to Begin Negotiations on a Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

No_nukes_tidyman

August 23, 2016 – UN member states in Geneva last week voted to adopt a report that recommended the General Assembly begin negotiations in 2017 on a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The report by the Open Ended Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament (OEWG) recommended a conference “open to all States, with the participation and contribution of international organizations and civil society, to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

The OEWG was established following a General Assembly resolution in Dec. 2015 and the calls for a complete ban on nuclear weapons are supported by 107 UN member states.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction not banned by international treaty and proponents of a ban want a treaty to prohibit the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of these weapons.

While a majority of states want a ban, crucially, the nuclear weapons states along with NATO members and countries under a US defense umbrella are against a ban, citing their security.

All African, Latin American, Caribbean, and Pacific countries support a ban but support among Western and European countries is not nearly as strong, with many belonging to NATO. Among the Western and European countries to support a ban are Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Serbia and Ukraine.

There were 14 countries that were against the adoption of last week’s report: Australia, Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Italy, Belgium, Slovenia, Romania, Latvia, Estonia, Turkey, Lithuania, and South Korea.

In all, 138 countries voted to establish the working group last December.

Among the countries that abstained on last week’s vote are the Netherlands and Japan. The Netherlands hosts US nuclear weapons while Japan is under the nuclear umbrella.

Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, has long called for complete disarmament but has not yet come out in support of a complete ban. Other countries that have not outright called for a compete ban on nuclear weapons have suggested that a first step towards a complete ban should be a ban on the use of nuclear weapons.

The nine nuclear weapons states – Britain, France, China, US, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – did not participate in the OEWG.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related:

Pope Francis Calls for Ban on Nuclear Weapons, Says Detterence an Affront to UN

NPT Conference Sparks Calls for New Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

Double Standards, Politics Blight UN’s Children in Conflict Report

Screenshot 2016-08-02 at 5.11.01 PM

August 2, 2016 – On Tuesday the Security Council discussed Ban Ki-moon’s report on children and armed conflict amid uproar that the Saudi-led coalition were removed from the list despite violations in Yemen.

The coalition were named in the annex of the report when it was released in June (first reported by UN Tribune in May) but after complaints from Riyadh, Ban removed the coalition pending review.

The reaction from NGO’s was fast and furious with Human Rights Watch going so far as releasing a crude cartoon of Ban getting his mouth stuffed with dollars, implying that the Saudis had bought their way off the list.

While the reaction was understandable, Ban was left stranded by both member states and, in particular, the permanent five members of the Security Council –  had he received backing from member states and especially the P5 he could have withstood the Saudi pressure and stuck by his initial report, but none was forthcoming.

The report is now in danger of losing all credibility, and not just over the removal of the Saudi-led coalition. Last year, Ban refused to name Israel in the annex of the report despite the recommendation of his special envoy for children in armed conflict.

And this year, Ban left Ukraine off the report, which covers Jan to Dec 2015. UNICEF has documented the killing and maiming of children in the Ukraine conflict throughout 2015, as well as the recruitment of children by both sides to the conflict, the bombing of schools and hospitals and the use of schools by military forces.

The situation in Ukraine clearly belonged in the report but no mention was made of it because both sides have the support of powerful members of the Security Council, i.e. Russia and the US. And despite the outcry by NGO’s over the Saudi removal from the list, only Watchlist 1612 has specifically highlighted the absence in the report of the situation in Ukraine and called for an end to the report’s double standards.

Absent too from the report are international forces supporting the Syrian government. Russian bombing of hospitals and schools and maiming and killing of children in Syria has been documented by Human Rights Watch but Moscow is not not named in the report.

The US bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz is mentioned in the report but it is attributed to nondescript “international forces” despite it being very clearly carried out by US forces.

If the report is to have an impact then UN member states, especially the most powerful, must support the inclusion of all parties that commit any one of the six grave violations even if it means that they themselves – that’s you Russia and the United States – are named as violators.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Iran Denies Arms Transfers Cited in UN Report on Nuclear Deal

Screenshot 2016-07-18 at 4.26.41 PM

July 18, 2016 – Ban Ki-moon said in his first report to the Security Council on the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal that he has received no information that nuclear related technology has been sold, transferred, or exported to Iran since the deal was implemented six months ago.

The report, discussed by the Council on Monday, did however contain information that a weapons shipment confiscated by the US Navy in March was bound for Yemen, in contravention of the agreement which bans Iran from exporting weapons for five years.

Screenshot 2016-07-18 at 3.56.46 PM
Ban wrote that the United States seized the weapons in international waters off the Gulf of Oman after its naval forces boarded a dhow, the Adris, on March 28, 2016. The United States in its report to Ban said the weapons shipment was likely bound for Yemen.

In its response, Tehran denied that the shipment originated in Iran and stated that it never engaged in such activity.

The report also cites the launching of ballistic missiles by Iran in early March. Resolution 2231 bans Iran for eight years from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

Screenshot 2016-07-18 at 4.05.23 PMOther concerns raised in the report include Iran’s participation in a weapons exhibit in Iraq. Iran claims that the weapons displayed remained in Iranian ownership despite having crossed an international border.

Screenshot 2016-07-18 at 4.08.01 PM
The report also cites the travel of Major General Qasem Soleimani of the IRGC to Iraq in violation of a travel ban imposed by the Security Council. Iran says Soleimani was in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government during its Fallujah operation.

Screenshot 2016-07-18 at 4.08.27 PM
For its part, Iran says it has yet to realize the benefits of the deal as its overseas assets are still frozen, that Iranian civilian aircraft are not given fuel at some EU destinations and that state and local governments in the US have sent threatening letters to foreign banks that invest in the Iranian energy sector.

The full report is here.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Catching Up With Others, U.S. and UN Look Set to Elect Female Leaders

Screenshot 2016-06-14 at 5.41.23 PM
June 14, 2016 – Later this year, it looks likely that both the United Nations and the United States will respectively elect female leaders. What is remarkable in both these instances is not that women will head both the world body and the world’s oldest democracy but that it will have taken both so long to elect a female leader.

Since its inception in 1945 eight men have held the post of secretary-general, despite UN agencies being at the forefront of advocating for gender equality. But five of the nine current candidates for the post are women and it appears that, more out of a sense of embarrassment than real commitment to gender equality, that the P5 members of the Security Council will nominate one of the five women for the post.

In the case of the United States, all 44 presidents have been men while women have never represented more than 20 percent of elected members of congress, far less for women of color. Only 35 women have ever served in the US Senate.

If elected, Hillary Clinton will be one of some twenty women who are currently either president or prime minster of a UN member state. In total, almost 70 women have served as president or prime minister. Presidents are typically elected directly while prime ministers take office as head of a party that has won the most seats in an election.

Below is a list of current female presidents or prime minsters of UN member states followed by lists of past female presidents and prime ministers followed by the year first elected. A number in brackets indicates the number of women to hold the post of president or prime minister for a particular country.

Current Female Leaders:

Germany – Chancellor Angela Merkel 
Liberia – President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson 
Bangladesh – Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Lithuania – President Dalia Grybauskaite
South Korea – President Park Geun-hye
Brazil – President Dilma Rouseff
Slovenia – Prime Minister Alenka Brautsek
Norway – Prime Minister Erna Solberg
Chile – President Michelle Bachelet
Malta – President Marie-Louise Coleiro
Poland – Prime Minister Beata Szydło
Croatia – President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic
Namibia – Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila
Mauritius - President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim
Nepal – President Bidhya Devi Bhandari
Marshall Islands – President
 Hilda Heine

Past Female Presidents:

Argentina 1974 (2)
Iceland 1980
Malta 1982
Philippines 1986 (2)
Nicaragua 1990
Ireland 1990 (2, only country where a woman has succeeded another as president)
Sri Lanka 1994
Guyana 1997
Switzerland 1999 (6 [one year terms])
Latvia 1999
Panama 1999
Finland 2000
Indonesia 2001
Serbia 2002
Liberia 2006
Chile 2006 (2)
Kyrgyzstan 2010
Costa Rica 2010
Malawi 2014
Central African Republic 2014 (interim)
Senegal 2014

Prime Ministers

Sri Lanka 1960 (3)
India 1966
Israel 1969
CAR 1975
UK 1979
Dominica 1980
Norway 1981 (3)
Yugoslavia 1982
Pakistan 1988
Bangladesh 1991
Poland 1992
Turkey 1992
New Zealand 1997
Senegal 2001
Sao Tome 2002
Mozambique 2004
Ukraine 2005
Jamaica 2006 (2)
South Korea 2006
Haiti 2008 (2)
Iceland 2009
Croatia 2009
Australia 2010
Finland 2010
Slovakia 2010
Thailand 2011
Slovenia 2011

Trinidad 2011
Denmark 2011
Jamaica  2006 (2)
Latvia 2014

Despite Attack on MSF Hospital, Ban Ki-moon Omits U.S. From Report on Child Rights Violators

Screenshot 2016-05-31 at 5.12.03 PM
May 31, 2016 – Ban Ki-moon’s annual report on children and armed conflict does not list the United States among the parties that have bombed hospitals in 2015.

The report includes two annexes of parties that commit any of the six grave violations against children, which includes recruiting, killing, maiming, rape and other sexual violence, abductions, and attacks on schools and hospitals. The first annex is for situations that are on the Security Council agenda, such as Syria and Afghanistan and the second annex for situations of armed conflict that are not on the Security Council’s agenda, such as the Philippines.

One party added to the annex this year is the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

(Update June 6: Following a protests from the Saudi UN mission, Ban has removed the Saudi coalition from the listing pending a join investigation by the UN and Saudi coalition)

But Ban has not named permanent Security Council member the United States even though it bombed a MSF hospital in Kunduz in October 2015 killing 42 health workers and patients.

Ban came in for wide criticism last year when he declined to include Israel in the annex despite a UN report blaming Israel for bombing seven schools during its summer 2014 invasion of Gaza.

Ban’s 2015 report does note the Kunduz attack and attributes it to international forces.

From the report:

Verified attacks on hospitals and health personnel (125) significantly increased compared with 2014 [for Afghanistan]. In the attacks, at least 63 health-care personnel, including vaccinators, were killed or injured, 66 abducted and 64 intimidated and assaulted. A total of 75 incidents were attributed to the Taliban; 14 to ISIL-affiliated groups; 1 to TTP; 19 to undetermined armed groups; 14 to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces and pro-Government militias; and 1 to international forces. For example, 49 medical staff were killed or injured in an air strike by international forces on the Médecins sans frontières hospital in Kunduz on 3 October.

Human Rights Watch’s Deputy UN Director Akshaya Kumar says accountability for crimes against children took a hit because of Ban’s refusal to name the U.S. as the responsible party.

“Accountability depends on being able to name perpetrators when they are known,” Kumar said to UN Tribune. “The UN Secretary General missed an opportunity to combat impunity by using a euphemism when the fact that the U.S. was responsible for the Kunduz attack is not in dispute.”

Ban’s office has yet to respond to request from UN Tribune to explain why he avoided naming the U.S. as the responsible party.

In total, 62 parties in 14 countries are named in the annexes to Ban’s report including government forces in Syria, Sudan, Yemen and the Afghan national police.

The full report is here.

 - Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

(story updated June 6 with comments from Human Rights Watch)

Italy, Sweden and Netherlands Vie for Two Available Security Council Seats

UN-Sicherheitsrat_-_UN_Security_Council_-_New_York_City_-_2014_01_06 May 23, 2016 – Elections for five non-permanent members of the Security Council take place next month with contested races in three of the five UN regional groups. Bolivia is running uncontested to replace Venezuela for the one available seat for Latin America.

The elections are taking place four months earlier than normal to give new members additional time to prepare for the ever increasing Security Council workload. The five new members will join the Council on Jan. 1 2017 for a two-year term. The Eastern Europe seat, currently held by Ukraine, is not up for election this year.

The most talked about race inside the UN is for the Western Europe and Others Group where EU members Italy, Netherlands and Sweden will battle it out for two available seats.

Candidate countries must secure the votes of 129 member states to secure a seat on the Council and it looks, at this stage, that Sweden will take one of the two seats being made vacant by New Zealand and Spain, with guaranteed support from fellow Nordic as well as Baltic states.

Sweden has served on the Council three times previously, most recently in 2000 and is one of the top aid donors to the UN, contributing $356 million so far this year, far more than either the Netherlands ($94M) and Italy ($16M).

The battle would then seem to be between Italy and the Netherlands. Rome is the biggest EU troop contributor to UN peacekeeping with more than 1,000 troops currently deployed and it is also at the fore of dealing with the migrant crisis with the country often the first intended destination for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean. It last served on the Council in 2008.

The Dutch angered permanent Security Council member the United States back in September when they refused a request to resettle two Guantanamo Bay inmates and this may hinder their bid for a seat. While the US only has one vote out of 193, its influence is much bigger than that particularly among states that are beneficiaries of US aid.

The Netherlands are well served by their foreign minister, Bert Koenders, who until his appointment with the Dutch government was head of the UN mission in Mali, where Dutch troops are also serving.

For their part, the Dutch are keen to stress that the Kingdom of the Netherlands constitutes four distinct countries, including the Caribbean islands of Saint Marten, Curacao and Aruba. Their hope is that the 40 or so small island states will lend their support to Amsterdam with the promise that their voices will be heard on the Security Council.

In the Asia-Pacific group, Thailand and Kazakhstan are in a race for the seat being made vacant by Malaysia. No former Soviet country from Central Asia has served on the Council. Kazakhstan voluntarily renounced its nuclear arsenal, then the world’s fourth largest, when it became independent in 1991 and it was a key driver of Central Asia becoming a nuclear-weapons-free-zone. It would appear to have the edge on Thailand in the race for a seat.

Thailand is currently ruled by a military junta after a 2014 coup and scheduled elections since have been repeatedly postponed.

Kenya and Ethiopia are both seeking the African seat currently held by Angola. Both countries are home to a large UN presence with the UN Environmental Program and UN Habitat headquartered in Nairobi. Kenya is also home to the Dadaab refugee camp complex, where almost 350,000 refugees live. The Kenyan government announced earlier this month its intention to shut down the camp, a move Ban Ki-moon said could have “potentially devastating consequences.”

Ethiopia is host to one of the largest UN country teams in the world – 27 UN programs and agencies have resident offices there.

That Kenya’s president and deputy president were both subject to indictments from the International Criminal Court and given Nairobi’s vocal campaign against the ICC, there’s speculation that it would use its seat on the UNSC to rail against the ICC. Advantage Ethiopia in this race.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related: How Much is a UN Security Council Seat Worth and Which Countries Get Elected?

UN And MSF At Odds Over Future of Humanitarian Work

May 10, 2016 –  Medecins Sans Frontiers’ decision last week to withdraw from the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) taking place later this month highlights the tension between aid organizations and the United Nations over the future of humanitarian work.

In a statement, MSF said the summit threatens “to dissolve humanitarian assistance into wider development, peace-building and political agendas.”

The Nobel-prize winning group, which has lost several staff members and had its hospitals bombed over the past year in conflict zones, added that it failed to see how the WHS would address the urgent needs of people living in conflict in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and other areas of armed violence.

At the heart of the matter is the UN’s desire to promote resilience in doing humanitarian and development work. While MSF say that humanitarian work should be kept separate from development work, the United Nations increasingly sees the two working in tandem.

Those inside the UN advocating for a joint approach point out that countries that emerge from conflict or other complex emergencies do not have a stronger society or systems when the emergency or conflict is over, and very often have a recurrence within five or ten years. For this reason, the UN and the WHS are asking how can countries that have repeated crisis be put on a sustainable path after a crisis.

With this in mind, there is a push to have humanitarian and development actors work in tandem, unlike the traditional sequential approach where aid workers come in and do their work and once they leave development workers come in and try to rebuild the society.

However, because of the core humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, humanitarian actors avoid working with local governments and once they leave the society is no more robust nor does it have a better emergency response system because aid organizations set up their own parallel systems that bypass the local governments, which should be the first line of response.

Another reason for the push towards resilience is that many crises are slow onset and protracted and it’s not necessarily a humanitarian response first and then a development response. Syria is a case in point where the crises is in its sixth year and it is both a humanitarian crisis – tending to the wounded and feeding the hungry – and a development crisis – establishing schools, devising cash for work programs – and it is also a transnational crisis affecting primarily its neighboring countries but also beyond, as in the case of Europe and the debate over refugees.

One can only admire the great work that MSF does around the globe in responding to emergencies and the great sacrifices it has made in doing so, and it it easy to sympathize with their decision not to attend the WHS.

Yet, an opportunity may have been lost in exploring how best to respond to future emergencies with the decision of MSF not to attend, given its status in the humanitarian world. Natural disasters are increasing and new conflicts continue to emerge and escalate at an alarming rate. Dealing with these crises exogenously is not going to work – outsiders going in and then leaving.

Core humanitarian principles – neutrality, independence, impartiality – need to be respected but they do not preclude the recognition and use of local systems. The question is how can local systems be used by respecting impartiality and neutrality and independence. 

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related Stories:

Tough Task Awaits New UN OCHA Chief

South Sudan’s Expulsion of UN Official Brings Controversial Integrated Approach Into Focus

UN ‘Dysfunction’ at Heart of Slow Response to Humanitarian Crises

Drought an Overlooked Catalyst for Syria Revolt

The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention Detailed in New Book by Former UN Aid Chief