World Humanitarian Summit Istanbul, 23-24 May 2016 : Preliminary reflections

The first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) took place in Istanbul on the 23rd and 24th of May 2016.

The purpose of this historical event was to redefine humanitarian action in the context of international increasing crises and to reinforce the respect for international norms. However, it is difficult to give a final assessment due to the fact that it has only been two weeks since the Summit took place and that a number of important documents are provisional (like the “Chair’s Summary “(1)– with, at this stage, no mention of religion – missing, or have not yet been published (like most of the “Commitments”).


Different Secretary-Generals have left different legacies:

  • Dag Hammarskjöld wrote a mystical diary Vägmärken (« Markings ») (2) and his life commitment ended tragically in Africa on a peace mission
  • Boutros Boutros Ghali showed his intellectual vision with both an « Agenda for Peace » (1992) (3) and an « Agenda for Development » (1994) (4)
  • Ban ki-moon: will the « Agenda for Humanity »(5) be his legacy? The WHS was indeed an initiative of the UN SG Ban Ki-moon, in January 2012.

This was the first (and certainly not the last) World Humanitarian Summit.

The idea of organizing international Summits is not new at the United Nations (U.N). A comparison with other Summits (on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015 (6) on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai (7) also in 2015, the 2014 U.N Security Council Summit,(8) the 2000 Millennium Summit in New York, (9) the G7 (10) could be useful on more than one aspect.

A comparison between the Climate Change Summits in Copenhagen and Paris COP21 might help to assess the Istanbul Summit. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (December 2009) raised climate change policy to the highest political level. Close to 115 world leaders attended the high-level segment, making it one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever outside UN headquarters in New York. More than 40,000 representatives of Governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental organizations, faith-based organizations, media and UN agencies applied for accreditation.(11) Nevertheless, it was only at COP 21 in Paris (December 2015) that Parties to the UNFCCC reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change,(12) largely due to the effort of the host country, France,(13) with the support of China and the U.S.A. The struggle against climate change goes on. The same should be said about humanitarian action: Istanbul was a first of many steps on a long road.(14)

I. Preparation (2014-2016)

During two years of regional, thematic and global consultations that were held from 2014 to 2016, 23,000 people from 153 countries were consulted. This includes Members of Governments, civil society, academia, NGOs, private businesses, religious and local communities.

In fall 2015, immediately after the Geneva Global Consultations,(15) the change of leadership at the helm of OCHA and of the WHS Secretariat may have caused a loss of momentum and, in some areas, a change of policy. In March 2016, there was a reorganization of the Summit management team with UNOCHA assuming direct management control. Stephen O’Brien, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, assumed full management for the Summit preparations. Gwi-Yeop Son, Director of UNOCHA Corporate Programmes, was placed in charge of all aspects of the Summit logistics, including liaisons with the Government of Turkey. In March and April 2016, UNOCHA reassigned over 140 of their staff, from existing emergency operations, such as South Sudan, and headquarter functions, to support the Summit preparations.

II. Participation

6.000 participants were expected, 9.000 came, from 173 countries, including a relatively limited number of Heads of State (22) and Government (28),(16) Heads of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations (such as the ICRC President, the Secretary-General of the IFRC, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies…)(17), 350 private sector representatives, and 2000 people from civil society, including NGOs, local communities, religious leaders.

The non-participation of Doctors Without Borders was well publicized in a communiqué released on the 5th of May, entitled “ MSF to pull out of World Humanitarian Summit”:

“We no longer have any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations. Instead, the WHS’s focus would seem to be an incorporation of humanitarian assistance into a broader development and resilience agenda. Further, the summit neglects to reinforce the obligations of states to uphold and implement the humanitarian and refugee laws which they have signed up to. As shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis, WHS participants will be pressed to a consensus on non-specific, good intentions to ‘uphold norms’ and ‘end needs’. The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored. Summit participants, whether States or UN agencies or non-governmental organisations, will be asked to declare new and ambitious “commitments”. But putting states on the same level as non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, which have no such powers or obligations, the Summit will minimise the responsibility of States. In addition, the non-binding nature of the commitments means that very few actors will sign up to any commitments they haven’t previously committed to.”(18)

MSF also published on May 20th 2016 “MSF’s reflections on the World Humanitarian Summit. Emergency Now. A Call for Action Beyond Summits”.(20)

Despite the large number of participants, this Summit was not inclusive enough. Many organizations and individual participants had to struggle to participate. Even Governments had their speaking time limited or had no chance to take the floor, due to time constraints.

Side-events were also strictly limited in number, time and space.(21) The Order of Malta participated in a Side-event entitled “Evidence for Religious Groups’ Contributions to Humanitarian Response”, co-hosted by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities, Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), Soka Gakkai International, the World Evangelical Alliance, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Religions for Peace, World Vision International and Malteser International. During this side event the Order of Malta spoke on the theme “Religious & Humanitarian Law and Action. A much needed dialogue and mutual support”.(22)

The difference with the Sendai Conference (Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction Sendai, Japan, 14-18 March 2015)(23) was striking: the Sendai Conference drew 6,500 participants to its formal portion, while the related Public Forum attracted 50,000 local residents and visitors from around the globe who seized the opportunity to engage with an array of players from the disaster risk reduction sector.

IV. Outcome of Istanbul: from words to action?

The Chair’s Summary is non-committal, vague in wording and attribution and most of the Commitments are not easy to collect,(24) formulated in general terms, not all meant to be really binding: the “Political Communiqué for the World Humanitarian Summit”, signed by more than 70 Governments (including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, U.S.A., and the European Union) clearly states:

“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”.(25)

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson – who played a very important role in Istanbul – says the commitments made during the Summit will be reviewed with participants over the summer and presented to the UN General Assembly in September in the form of a report by the Secretary-General. Next steps could include inter-governmental processes to follow through on those commitments, but the exact approach has yet to be decided.(26)

Nevertheless the WHS is opening a new channel of international humanitarian diplomacy within the UN System. Some countries – like Switzerland – even wonder if it could be a competition to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.(27)

V. Real results to be expected from real Powers?

The multi-stakeholder participation was a strength and a weakness of the WHS. Indeed in the words of Nicolas Borsinger, Chairman of VOICE, Istanbul was “A Jamboree of Good Will People” .(28) According to the Swiss Ambassador Manuel Bessler “Let’s walk the talk”. We need to create a surge in « public conscience » to pressure Governments and parties to conflicts to abide by the fundamental principles of the Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law. We could do this in the spirit of the Open Letter to all UN Member States published the 3rd of May by the ICRC, with a number of National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (“A strong resolve to end violence against health care”)(29) published the same day the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2286 (2016).

VI. Possible Follow-ups in the months and years to come

The Secretary-General declared at the Closing Session of the Summit

“It is not an end point, but a turning point”, adding “In September, I will report to the United Nations General Assembly on the Summit’s achievements. I will propose ways to take our commitments forward through intergovernmental processes, interagency forums and other mechanisms”.(30)

In the meantime, many follow-up meetings, formal and informal, are planned within the UN system and in other forum:

In 2016 the following meetings will be held:

  • Academia,
    • USIP in Washington, (on the 2nd of June),(31)
    • Geneva University (on the 21st of June), •
  • Humanitarian Segment of ECOSOC in New York (from the 27th, 28th and 29th of June),(33)
  • Round Table in San Remo (from the 8th to the 10th of September)
  • New York Summits (on 19th and 20th of September)

In 2017, the Order of Malta will host a Symposium in Rome.

In 2020, a Second World Humanitarian Summit might take place, although it was not yet formally announced.

VII. What could we do now?

First of all, we could take stock of what we could accomplish by participating in the preparatory meetings (European Consultations in Budapest in February 2015 and Regional Consultations in Geneva in October 2015) and at Istanbul’s Summit. We could reflect on how we could achieve more in the future.

Second, keep an eye on future follow-up meetings of the WHS, participate whenever possible and be informed of the outcome in all cases.

Third have in mind the two Summits planned in New York:

  • on the 19th of September the « UN Summit on managing large-scale movements of migrants and refugees ». Mrs. Karen AbuZayd of the United States is the Special Adviser and could be contacted in New York(34)
  • on the 20th of September, President Barack Obama will host a « Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis » on the margins of UNGA 71 on September 20, 2016 to galvanize significant new global commitments to:
    1. increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations,
    2.  admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and
    3. increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work.

Last, plan follow-up events, whenever possible in partnership with Governments, UN Agencies (UNHCR in particular), IOM, ICRC, NGOs, Academia, religious leaders and FBOs, media.

On a local level, the Permanent Mission in Geneva of the Order of Malta was contacted by Ms. Floriana Polito from Caritas Internationalis, which will be organizing a side-event to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the afternoon of the 28th of June. They will take the format of the side-event originally planned for the WHS in Istanbul on the role of religious leaders and FBOs on prevention and resolution of conflicts. The Mission in Geneva shall cosponsor this side-event and will contribute to this reflection.

The months and years to come shall be crucial for the UN and the humanitarians with a new Secretary-General, a new WHO Director-General, a new President of the U.S.A. Continuing or even increasing crises with a greater need for humanitarian assistance and protection, a better synergy between stakeholders, a constant attention to what we could all learn from each other in improving our action.

Michel Veuthey Deputy Permanent Observer of the Order of Malta at the U.N. in Geneva
Geneva, 6 June 2016

I would like to thank Guillaume Fournier, Dominika Kianičková and Anna Requejo, my Assistants in Geneva, for their assistance in research and editing work for this paper.


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