By Ben Ofori
This post is the first of a seven-part series on the themes of the High-Level Leaders' Roundtables at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, to be held May 23-24 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Going into the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, there are good reasons why conflict and violence remain high on the agenda, but these reasons are not new. Conflicts and violence exact a brutal toll on people and affected communities as tragic civilian deaths, injuries, rape and torture become a daily experience. Vital infrastructures like schools, health and water systems are destroyed, and children no longer in school become vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.
Agriculture and food production ceases, food stocks are depleted and acute hunger and malnutrition take their toll. People flee their homes into neighbouring towns or countries and some brave treacherous seas in search of refuge as seen in the graphic imageries of Syrians fleeing to Europe. The list goes on. Essentially, as the UN Secretary General notes in his report for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), "countries coming out of prolonged civil war are never the same, their social and political fabric [are] changed forever."
Changing complexity of today's conflicts
Today's violent conflicts are notable for their number and complexity. There were 11 major civil conflicts in 2014, up from four in 2007-2011. The sheer numbers of actors and their divergent interests further prolong and make it difficult to resolve conflicts. Cities and urban areas have become major theaters of war and transnational criminal and extremist groups thrive in conflict and fragile states, prolonging violence and frustrating state-building efforts. In effect, the prospects of negotiating peace have become more difficult.
Meanwhile, conflicts exact a heavy burden on the humanitarian response capacity and resources of the international community. Nearly two-thirds of UN peacekeepers and about 90 per cent of UN personnel on special political missions are assigned to countries with high-intensity conflicts. More than 80 per cent of humanitarian funds requested by the UN goes to address problems in conflict areas. These funds could have otherwise been applied to build capacity and strengthen institutions, educate children, enhance the livelihoods and incomes of women and families, improve health care and support smallholder agriculture in poorer countries, etc.
Conflict-related costs of response
Speaking of funds, today's conflicts along with natural disasters and changing climate renders insufficient what is otherwise an unprecedented level of humanitarian generosity. In 2014, the UN humanitarian agency raised US$ 24.5 billion for humanitarian action, up from US$ 2 billion in 2000. Regardless, the UN recorded its largest ever shortfall as only 62 per cent of needs identified were being addressed.
In 2015, for example, 1.6 million Syrian refugees had their food rations cut and 750,000 of their children could not attend school. UN-run health care services shut down in several areas of Iraq leaving millions of internally displaced people without medical attention. Experts warn of potential further cuts ahead.
The cost implications of conflict-induced emergencies cannot be emphasized enough. Some estimates put the economic and financial costs at $14 trillion or 13.4 per cent of the global economy in 2014. If the current trends continue, some experts warn, the cost of humanitarian assistance will rise to about $50 billion and 62 per cent of the world's poor would be living in fragile and conflict-affected countries. This is why violent conflicts should be high on the agenda of the WHS in May.
Canada can lead by promoting human rights for all people (including women and minorities) and investing in good governance and institutional capacity building.
The elephant in the room
While humanitarian response and peacekeeping may ameliorate suffering and stabilize the situation in the near term, they cannot of themselves address the root causes of human suffering associated with conflicts. This could well be the elephant in the room at the WHS Roundtables in May. Experts agree that the way to prevent conflicts is to address their root causes using political solutions. Unfortunately, it seems easier to deliver humanitarian assistance than to invest in political solutions. Without the needed political and diplomatic efforts, humanitarians are left to shoulder a burden that properly belongs elsewhere.
Canada can seize on this opportunity on the global stage to provide leadership at the WHS Roundtable on conflict prevention. Canada can leverage its leadership in humanitarian response, peacekeeping and refugee resettlement to rally a coalition of donor countries around the cause of investing in conflict prevention. This includes taking decisive political leadership at the highest level and long-term investment in peaceful and inclusive societies. It demands building support for policies that uphold the humanity of others, invests in early risks monitoring and analysis, and encourages prompt early action when warning signs appear.
Canada can lead by promoting human rights for all people (including women and minorities) and investing in good governance and institutional capacity building. The preamble of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) captures the global collective resolve to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies free from fear and violence (also expressed in Goal 16). If the SDGs are to be realized at all, we must take investments in peace and conflict prevention more seriously.
Ben Ofori is Senior Policy Advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
This blog series on the World Humanitarian Summit was convened by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. The views expressed in each blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC, its members, or other participating organizations.
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The plight of Syrians besieged in the town of Madaya prompted an international humanitarian response (AP Photo) Hunger, starvation, and extreme malnourishment present existential threats to millions of Syria's most vulnerable people. The young, the elderly, and the infirm are all particularly susceptible to the effects of malnutrition, which can stunt the growth of children, and exacerbate chronic medical conditions. Unicef deputy director Lily Caprani told HuffPost UK about the effects long-term malnourishment are having as the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year. She said: "There’s hunger in the short term, and then malnutrition over the longer term severely and in some cases irreversibly damages children’s development, so a child who at the age of two or three is undernourished can physical stop growing. “Unfortunately there are some cases where that cannot be undone. We’re trying to stop getting it to that stage." Unicef continues to work in Syria, and it estimates it has helped the majority of those who need help in accessible areas. That still leaves as many as two million out of reach of aid, however. Towns which are besieged by fighting are particularly difficult to access. In one example, the situation in the Syrian town of Madaya, north west of Damascus, had become so dire that the UN estimated 400 residents needed to be immediately evacuated to receive life-saving treatment. Their conditions related to extreme malnourishment and starvation, as well as medical conditions.
Syrian boys play with snow following a storm in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on January 5 Exposure to the elements is become a concern for aid agencies operating in and around Syria. Harsh winters bring snow, ice, and chilling winds - making for harrowing conditions in houses lacking electricity and the refugee camps bordering on vast, desolate landscapes. "One of the key things we worry about every year in that on top of everything else, we now have extreme cold," Lily Caprani of Unicef UK says, "Although we're doing everything we can to them, they're living in tents, in containers." The organisation is leading a campaign to keep children warm this winter with hats, gloves and scalfs. "Many of the refugees in... countries such as Jordan and Lebanon live in terrible conditions and are struggling to find warmth as temperatures fall," Robert Mardini, director for the Near and Middle East with the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Al Jazeera. "They live with the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow will bring, or even if they will ever make it back home one day."
Syrians searching for survivors in the rubble of destroyed buildings following the barrel bomb-attacks of Syrian air forces on February 2, 2014, in Aleppo, Syria. Barrel bombs continue to plague Syrian cities. The improvised devices are thrown from transport helicopters, without the ability to hit specific targets. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the number of civilains killed by Syrian regime barrel bombs outnumbers those slain by the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, told HuffPost UK that the bombs were developed due to either a lack of weaponry or aircraft around a year or so into the current conflict. He said: “While early ones appeared to be similar in size to oil barrels, the ones that have been seen generally have a smaller diameter. “They were first seen in the summer of 2012. “They are a way of turning the Syrian air force’s Mi-8/17 helicopters into attack aircraft as the improvised bombs can be rolled out the rear cargo doors.” “The bombs are capable of destroying buildings and killing people, but almost certainly have less explosive power than mass-produced aircraft bombs of similar size."
A Russian bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria Airstrikes from foreign forces continue to pose a threat to civilian life - however unintended this may be. In December, at least 26 people were believed to have been killed following US-led airstrikes attacking suspected Isis positions. The Guardian reported Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying Isis is in control of Al-Khan but is only on its outskirts, “which is why all of the deaths were civilians”. The US military command said it was investigating the claims. Britain's Royal Air Force, which received Parliamentary authority to commence airstrikes last year, says it is able to say no civilians have died as a result of its recent airstrikes in Syria which are planned meticulously to prevent collateral damage.
A health worker marks the thumb of a Syrian child after giving him polio vaccine (File Photo) Dirty water and the resulting disease pose a continued threat to Syrians living in increasingly unsanitary conditions. Unicef is one of a number of aid agencies working to mitigate the risks, but even it admits that millions of Syrian children and adults who continue to be at risk in areas that cannot be easily reached. While the threat continues to be high - disease is one of the areas of success for agencies trying hard to prevent a public health disaster dovetailing with the fierce conflict. Lily Caprani of Unicef told HuffPost UK: "We’re making sure children and the vulnerable are immunized against waterborne disease, because we know they are going to be exposed to disease so we make sure they’re going to be protected. “This can help prevent a public health disaster. One of the very few pieces of good news is that you would expect the resurgence of disease and infections we would normally not see. “But because we’ve managed to immunize we’ve prevented this. There have been no new cases of polio since January 2014 and that’s short of a miracle. "It’s relatively cheap to do - it doesn’t cost a lot of money and it prevents the snowball effect of a public health emergency." Nonetheless, the shocking state of health uncovered at the besieged town of Madaya in January points towards localised medical emergencies being commonplace in some areas in the country.
A visitor looks at photographs in the 'Caesar's Photos: Inside Syria's Secret Prisons', a collection of photographs smuggled out of Syria last year Torture and execution remain a threat to civilian life throughout Syria, with hundreds allegedly killed at the hands of President Assad's regime alone. Syria has systematically tortured and executed 11,000 of its citizens in the three-year war, according to a report by former war crimes prosecutors, who compared the bodies they saw to images of Nazi death camp victims. Meanwhile the so-called Islamic State has been adept at publicising its regime's torture and execution, even publishing reports in its own magazine, with countless Syrians and scores of foreigners killed in the now signature orange jumpsuits. In January, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that an Islamic State militant executed his own mother, after she encouraged him to leave the terror group.
Violence and exploitation resulting from the break down of Syrian society present a real threat to the lives of adults and children alike, whilst kidnapping remains a tactic of fear used by militants. There are countless examples of violence between warring factions spilling over into civilian communities, wounding and killing innocent people. Unicef's experience of conflict emergencies across the world has led it to the conclusion that education can protect children from violence and exploitation. Lily Caprani, UK deputy director, told HuffPost UK: "If children are in education, they’re in a safe space. If children are in a safe environment with safe people, the risks of violence and exploitation are lower. "This protects children from adults who might not have their best interests at heart." Kidnapping by Islamic State militants continues to present a real threat to civilian life. Last year, hundreds of innocent people were taken by the group amid mounting international calls for the release of those abducted.
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