The failure in Syria: The World Humanitarian Summit, civilian protection and humanitarian access

by 17th May 2016
A family in Dara’a governorate in southern Syria, where CARE is working with partners to deliver emergency supplies to more than 30,000 people A family in Dara’a governorate in southern Syria, where CARE is working with partners to deliver emergency supplies to more than 30,000 people

One of the three key goals of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on 23-24 May is to “reaffirm our commitment to humanity and humanitarian principles.” Sitting here in Amman, Jordan, working closely with Syrian colleagues delivering assistance inside Syria, as well as to the five million refugees who have been displaced from the country, the pressing need to reaffirm these commitments is clear.

Political commitment and action to ensure respect for humanity in times of war, as enshrined in International Humanitarian Law, and support for neutral, independent and impartial aid, is imperative. With almost 13.5 million people in dire need of assistance inside Syria, five million refugees living in neighbouring countries and a stalled political process, the situation will become even more precarious unless urgent action is taken.

At a time when there is a desperate need for the world to demand both an end to attacks on civilians inside Syria and unfettered humanitarian access to all in need, the World Humanitarian Summit represents an opportunity to hold world leaders to these humanitarian principles and laws, which are currently being blatantly violated in Syria on a daily basis.

Furthermore, challenging questions have been asked of the humanitarian system and its approach to delivering aid on a needs-based approach. Coordination of the humanitarian effort in this most complex of conflicts is always going to be controversial and contested. So the World Humanitarian Summit needs to challenge not just states, the ultimate duty-bearers of course, but also humanitarian agencies on their own approach. We too must be held accountable for our efforts to protect and assist.

The UN Secretary General himself has called on global leaders to commit to five core responsibilities in his Agenda for Humanity, including two of particular relevance to the situation in Syria, calling for:  

  • Global leadership to prevent and end conflict. Finding political solutions to resolve conflicts is our first and foremost responsibility to humanity.
  • Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately killed in Syria.

This is perhaps the most documented conflict in history and we are witnessing on the news and social media the erosion of 150 years of international humanitarian law. Despite numerous UN Security Council resolutions demanding an end to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and immediate unfettered humanitarian access, the attacks continue and the humanitarian assistance continues to be blocked.  

There are some humanitarian organisations like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who have decided to pull out of the World Humanitarian Summit – MSF citing,  among other concerns, that the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to uphold. MSF argues the summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored.  

I believe the concerns of MSF are more than valid and it is incumbent on every humanitarian or civil society organisation, government and business invited to attend the World Humanitarian Summit to use it as a platform to voice these concerns. Tell the world loudly and forcefully that the civilian protection violations occurring in Syria are unacceptable and most stop immediately. Attendees must challenge any and all states and actors violating these laws and principles. If attendees of the summit do that, it will be at least one successful outcome of the summit.

Blake Selzer

Blake Selzer is a Senior Regional Advocacy Coordinator for CARE International based in Amman, Jordan, working on the Syria crisis.