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Ban chides US, other no-shows at humanitarian summit

With only one G7 head of state attending, the UN summit underscores how much cheaper it would be if world leaders focused on ending conflicts, especially the war in Syria, rather than trying to deal with the enormous humanitarian crises that result. 

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    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R) and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon co-hosted the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, May 24. President Erdogan's role caused the world leaders of the UN Security Council to skip the meeting, some diplomats say.
    Murad Sezer/Reuters
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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took the leaders of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations to the woodshed for shirking their responsibility in addressing the global humanitarian assistance, which he describes as the worst in the seven decades of UN existence.

The question is: Will they even take notice of the criticism ?

In closing the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit he had called to address the 125 million people currently in need of some form of assistance, Mr. Ban said Tuesday night, “It’s a bit disappointing that some leaders could not be here, especially those of the G7” group of industrialized countries. ”They are the richest countries in the world, and they show leadership by example.”

That’s about as severe a lashing as the world’s top diplomat ever gives the most powerful members of the organization he runs. Yet the mild-mannered Ban didn’t stop there, but went on to single out the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: “The absence of those leaders from this meeting do not provide an excuse for inaction.”

Indeed, none of the leaders of the Security Council’s “Perm 5” – the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France – attended the summit, instead sending lower level humanitarian officials. Of the G7 leaders, only Germany’s Angela Merkel – who confronts a make-or-break refugee crisis at home – took the time to make a summit appearance.

That failing attendance record – and Ban’s spotlight on it – underscored one of the summit’s hottest discussion topics and defining takeaways: that all the well-intentioned (and increasingly costly) humanitarian intervention the world can marshal will mean little if the world’s big powers fail at the political leadership necessary to prevent and end violent conflicts.

Illustrating that reality more starkly than any other conflict is the Syrian war, which has entered its sixth year, leaving in its wake as many as 300,000 dead, millions of refugees and internally displaced, a tsunami of migration in Europe – and a trail of dashed diplomatic efforts at halting the fighting.

The war, involving a web of conflicting interests among domestic groups and regional and world powers, would flummox even the most experienced diplomat. Still, the war-ravaged Syrian children who sang to the 55 heads of state and government and prominent civil-society leaders who did attend the summit were a poignant reminder that preventing conflict is much cheaper – both financially and in terms of the human toll – than addressing the consequences of wars.

Originally, UN officials had thought holding the summit in a country so close to the crisis would shine a useful light on the topic and encourage more action. But some summit participants wondered if rubbing world leaders’ noses in their own failings by holding the summit in Turkey might have encouraged some to plead “previous commitments.”

Clearly irked by the absence of the world’s powerful from a gathering he co-hosted, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chided those leaders while vaunting Turkey’s rise as a force in humanitarian intervention. The crisis is not the result of “a lack of resources, but a lack of political will,” he said

For some diplomatic experts, it was President Erdogan’s role as summit co-host that gave world leaders all the more reason to stay away. Western leaders weren’t anxious to be seen taking the traditional leaders’ photo with a strongman seen to be reducing political space and respect for human rights. Also, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan hardly see eye to eye on Syria – particularly on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Erdogan repeatedly used the summit stage to showcase Turkey’s growing role in global humanitarian efforts. He noted that Turkey now does humanitarian outreach as far away as Somalia and The Philippines, and claimed that on a per capita basis Turkey is the world’s top donor of aid.

Indeed, the world’s middle-income countries are increasingly involved in arenas like humanitarian intervention that were once the domain of the wealthy countries. Increasingly those countries are going to bring their priorities and their values with their intervention, and those may not always dovetail with how the Western powers, in particular, envision intervention.

Big powers, including the US, objected to all the talk of their “absence” and countered with initiatives from senior officials and rundowns of their humanitarian programs. The US closed the summit by distributing a fact sheet reminding the world that the US is the single-largest provider of humanitarian assistance.

During the summit, USAID administrator Gayle Smith headlined a US-initiated reaffirmation of humanitarian law by 47 countries. It was a response to critics who say world powers are doing nothing about violations of international law in conflicts, and particularly with the rising targeting by combatants of hospitals, schools, and refugee camps.

As for Ban, he accompanied his disappointment at world leaders with a list of the summit’s accomplishments, including a new “Grand Bargain” on aid financing that pairs lengthened commitments on funding with commitments for more effective and efficient spending, and a new multibillion-dollar fund for education of children displaced by conflict.

Even there, the top global diplomat managed to ding the summit’s big no-shows: “In the implementation phase [of these efforts], I hope they will be more engaged.”

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