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World Humanitarian Summit and the Crisis of Humanitarianism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the World Humanitarian Summit, May 23, 2016. Original, Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Over five thousand international delegates gathered in Istanbul last week to mull over the dire state of the world´s humanitarian needs. The venue of the World Humanitarian Summit could not have been more appropriate. It reflects Turkey´s central role in the Syrian crisis, as host to the bulk of the conflict´s exiles and its discontents. At the same time, it also acts as a metaphor for the mess that Turkey somehow got itself into, of its failings in regional geopolitics and of its internal political regression. It is, perhaps, one of those last international summits hosted and sponsored by the Turkish state, taking place at the twilight of Ahmet Davutoğlu´s political career. Davutoğlu, to his credit, was the chief architect of Turkey’s role as a bridge between people, otherwise bitterly divided, as a diplomatic go-between, a host in the classical sense of the word. And the World Humanitarian Summit, despite, and perhaps because of its predictable failure, is a true reflection of Davutoğlu´s political legacy, in Turkey, and beyond.

One of the world´s largest humanitarian organizations, Médecins Sans Frontières, called the World Humanitarian Summit "a fig-leaf of good intentions", as it pulled out of the meetings in earnest. Insider accounts suggest frustration and anger among the UN organizers, compounded by a disappointing representation from important states.

Underlying this ruckus is a series of systemic problems that have been eating away the foundations of the international humanitarian aid system for over two decades. On the one hand, political and economic interests have diluted the ethos of international humanitarianism --neutrality and impartiality. These essential principles have been progressively corroded by the infiltration of a financially and politically motivated development sector and even militaries into humanitarian efforts. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq speak volumes to the scale of this problem. On the other hand, two key post-World War II principles governing humanitarian work and the protection of vulnerable populations, namely the protections afforded under International Humanitarian Law in conflict zones, and the right to asylum under the Refugee Conventions in places of safety, have both been fundamentally undermined. The culprits, ironically, include some of the original architects of these norms, including permanent members of the UN’s Security Council.

Two recent events ought to be highlighted as they form a stark backdrop to the summit in Istanbul. One of these is the entry into force of the infamous EU-Turkey deal on migration. On March 18, the Turkish state and the European Union reached an agreement to control migration flows from Turkey to the Greek islands, and onward to other member states. The gist of the EU-Turkey deal is the creation of a system that externalizes the refugee problem to Turkish territory, designating it a safe third country, in exchange for what are fundamentally political concessions. What this means, in sum, is that bodies have been bartered for political gain. Refugees and migrants, as a result, have been stripped of their human agency, and their fundamental right to seek asylum, granted to them by the Geneva Conventions of 1951. Aside from the fact that the legal basis of this deal has now been thrown into question as a Greek court has ruled that Turkey does not qualify as a safe third country, an opinion shared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the European Council on Refugees & Exiles, and most humanitarian organizations, it has been clear from its conception that the deal is contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, if not the letter.

The other event, which is not by any means one if its kind, was the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan by an American gunship in October 2015. This strike came as a culmination of sorts to the historically high number of attacks on humanitarians in conflict zones across the world, from South Sudan to Pakistan. The strike itself and then the mere disciplining of those found at fault by the US military, struck a critical blow to humanitarian norms in conflicts zones.

To be sure, these two key events are the hallmark of a systemic undermining of the global humanitarian architecture. Moreover, given that the perpetrators of these sorry affairs are the chief patrons of the liberal world order, instituted after the Great War, these events have inevitably had a snowballing effect as both Europe and America have lost their moral high ground in areas of conflict. What has followed the Kunduz bombing is more of the same by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and by Russia in Syria, for example. The EU-Turkey deal, similarly, has spawned demands by African states for similar deals to stem migration flows from their own territories, not to mention the recently announced Kenyan plan to shut down the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab.

It is all too clear now that the refugee has become a bargaining chip in inter-state politics. And this happens as states continue to disregard their international obligations to protect humanitarian space at the sources of the refugee crises, in conflict zones. In their own territories, simultaneously, and under the fear of right-wing politics, Western states have altered the very nature of asylum, from a right as it was spelled originally, to a favour, bestowed on a select few.

By putting governments on the same level as non-governmental actors and demanding non-binding commitments from both alike, the World Humanitarian Summit has discounted the former’s responsibilities towards humanitarian principles. The challenges posed to the global humanitarian framework are fundamentally state-driven, so must the solution. By failing to realise this, the organizers of the summit have presaged its unfortunate failure.

Cynical as it may be, it is rather appropriate that the summit took place here in Turkey. On the eve of the summit’s opening, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the seasoned host of countless such international meetings, was sent packing by the President. His own premature departure, in the likeness of his foreign policy, symbolises a grim reality of the region’s politics and recognizes the summit for what it is – a fig-leaf of good intentions.


Talha Jalal is an author and a humanitarian worker based in Turkey. The views expressed in this article are solely his own and do not reflect those of any organization.

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