World Humanitarian Summit criticized for lack of action, accountability

Canada attended the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul — an event criticized for its lack of concrete action and accountability.

International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau attended on behalf of Canada

Participants attend an event called 'Mayors' Focus Session: Cities' Response to Migration,' at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on Tuesday. World leaders and representatives of humanitarian organizations from across the globe met for the World Humanitarian Summit. (Isa Terli/Associated Press)

Canada's presence at the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul marks a policy change for this country, which has for the past several years distanced itself from an organization whose relevance was questioned by the previous government.  

But critics say the summit, which took place Monday and Tuesday, may be just another five-star gathering of well-intentioned idealists.

The UN says "multiple, seemingly intractable conflicts, climate change and natural disasters" have left an estimated 125 million men, women and children in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proposed bringing together representatives from governments, business, academia and the non-profit sector to improve the way the world responds to the confluence of crises.

'Conspicuous absences' of world leaders

Oxfam attended the event but decried the "conspicuous absences" of key world leaders who "dodged their responsibility to protect civilians from the ongoing suffering of wars and natural disasters," executive director Winnie Byanyima said in a statement Tuesday.

Oxfam's country director for Turkey, Meryem Aslan, told CBC News the organization was disappointed that "lip service" continued to be paid in some areas.

"We were hoping for a stronger commitment to accountability and ending impunity," she said. "There were no such bold actions."

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks at the the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on Tuesday. (Isa Terli/Associated Press)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only G7 leader in attendance at the summit, echoed the lack of accountability.

"Very often pledges are made but the money does not reach where it is most needed," Merkel said, according to German news agency DPA.

A footnote on the "political communiqué" signed by summit participants suggests the ambiguous commitment: "This communiqué is not legally binding and does not affect the signatories' existing obligations under applicable international and domestic law. Rather, the signatures below reflect the high-level political commitments of the member states represented."

That statement underscores what former prime minister Stephen Harper and others have said is a major failing of the UN — the inability to enforce any financial pledges or other commitments made by nations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to restoring Canada as an "active and constructive member" of the UN and pledged a $256-million increase in foreign development assistance in the last budget, ending the previous government's five-year freeze.

At the summit, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced further $274-million and $331.5-million Canadian contributions in humanitarian aid. But Bibeau has already said that Canada can't meet the UN's target for overall aid spending, which is 0.7 per cent of gross national income.

'Fig-leaf of good intentions'

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) criticized the event as nothing but a "fig-leaf of good intentions" and pulled out earlier this month, in part over the world's failure to protect civilians in conflict zones and the failure of the UN to hold states accountable.  

"States increasingly and shamelessly brush aside legal frameworks that once ensured a minimum of hope and humanity for people caught up in crises and war, and for those fleeing violence and despair," Stephen Cornish, executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada, told CBC News in an email Tuesday. "The World Humanitarian Summit could have been an opportunity to address these vital issues but failed to do so."

Doctors Without Borders also said politics and national security concerns too often get in the way of humanitarian aid.

"When security imperatives dominate, expect to see more people washed up on the shores of Europe, more hospitals bombed in war zones, and an even slower international response to epidemics," the organization said in a statement Monday. "And as states pursue their security agendas, they leave a constrained and partially co-opted humanitarian aid system to cope with the consequences of their decisions."

Actor Sean Penn attends a session called 'Global Alliance for Urban Crises' at the summit on Monday. (Berk Ozkan/Associated Press)

Coinciding with the summit, a report just released by the charity Concern Worldwide casts further doubt on the fulfilment of promises made at humanitarian summits. The charity calculates that signatories to the UN co-hosted London Conference in February — including Canada — have so far committed just $1.6 billion of the $6 billion pledged in aid toward the Syrian crisis.

Regarding the World Humanitarian Summit, Concern Worldwide says humanitarian aid is not a substitute for failed diplomacy or lack of political will to find solutions to "protracted global problems."

"It cannot be satisfied merely by proposing more structural changes to the humanitarian system," the group said in a statement on its website. "It must tackle the root causes of crises at a political level, and the political decisions that allow conflict to flourish. Anything less is a failure."