Executive Summary

Humanitarianism: past, present and future

ICIHI was a visionary undertaking, whose recommendations on a range of important humanitarian issues remain relevant today. In that respect, it must be acknowledged that many of the Commission’s objectives remain to be fulfilled. Millions of people are victims of armed conflict, human rights violations, forced displacement and food insecurity. Humanitarian action is increasingly undertaken in situations of persistent insecurity, the blatant disregard of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by states and other actors, as well as a climate of impunity for crimes against humanity.

Hopes that the UN Security Council would be able to prevent and resolve armed conflicts after the end of the Cold War have been dashed. Political and military actors, including the Security Council, have become increasingly involved in humanitarian action.

Despite renewed talk of ‘localization’, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, humanitarian action is still dominated by governments, institutions and individuals from the Global North. States and societies are increasingly preoccupied with their own interests, and the sense of outrage and solidarity required to create a more peaceful and equitable world simply does not exist. ‘Winning the human race’, the title of ICIHI’s final report, remains a distant challenge.

Since the work undertaken by ICIHI, there has been a massive expansion in the discourse on humanitarian issues. Even so, the Commission’s final report has some important attributes. It contains strikingly little jargon. It adopts a broad definition of ‘humanitarianism’. And a number of its recommendations have since been taken up and implemented by the international community.

Despite its many challenges, it would be misleading to describe the current humanitarian sector as being ‘broken’. It has responded to new threats, expanded exponentially, has become more diverse and more professional. At the same time, the sector’s growth has not matched the demands made upon it. The sector also remains top-down and technically obsessed.

The humanitarian sector is not satisfying its key stakeholders. Those people who are assisted by the sector regard it as being opaque, unpredictable and difficult to navigate. They feel either ignored or over-consulted, but almost never genuinely listened to.

Those engaged in humanitarian operations are preoccupied by the limited resources available and the insecurity and restrictions on access which confront them. Those trying to coordinate the sector are disturbed by the duplication and waste generated by the self-interest of individual agencies. Actors based in the Global South feel squeezed, sidestepped and exploited.

The human voice is being lost in the discourse on humanitarian issues? The sector appears to be fixated on numbers, data, analysis and analytics. There is a serious risk that the humanitarian community will be distanced and even alienated from the very people that it is intended and is claiming to serve.

Please refer to pages 5 to 9 and 22 to 23 of this report for further details of this discussion.


Humanitarian action and the laws of war

ICIHI placed a great of emphasis on disseminating and promoting a better understanding of IHL, and made a number of recommendations as to how these objectives might be attained. It was noted that the Commission’s leaders, most notably Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and Zia Rizvi, had been central to the development of the ‘humanitarian consensus’ in Afghanistan in 1989, which had allowed the UN to provide aid across borders and front-lines in that country, largely on the basis of need.

By way of contrast, in Syria today, aid agencies have accepted an operating environment in which IHL is routinely violated and the assistance they provide is instrumentalized to further the military and political interests of the warring parties.

The conference concluded that the current indifference with respect to violations of IHL must be challenged and replaced with a sense of outrage at the treatment of civilians affected and displaced by armed conflict. That sense of outrage will have limited impact, however, if it is confined to humanitarian and human rights professionals. Popular mobilization is essential. Finally, the language of crisis can be counterproductive if it is overused and generates a sense of helplessness. In seeking to promote respect for IHL and international refugee law, it is important to promote and build upon positive examples.

Please refer to pages 10 to 13 of this report for further details of this discussion.


Refugees and displaced people

The conference observed that much of ICIHI’s 1986 report on human displacement remains highly relevant today, and in that respect, the global refugee situation has changed far less than is generally thought to be the case. ICIHI sought to promote a more holistic, proactive and homeland-oriented approach to the issue of human displacement. This cause was taken up by Commission member Sadako Ogata when she became UN High Commissioner for Refugees five years later, although the international refugee protection regime proved resistant to this new paradigm.

The conference identified a number of ways in which the protection, assistance and solutions available to the world’s displaced people could be strengthened. Sympathetic political leaders and other personalities could be encouraged to take a firm public stand in favour of refugee protection principles. States should be reminded of the obligations they have freely assumed under international law and as members of the UN.

Refugee-hosting countries should be provided with political, economic and developmental incentives to pursue progressive refugee policies. And a range of different constituencies should be mobilized, including uprooted people themselves, to lobby for the fair treatment of refugees and the displaced and to hold governments to account for their action.

Please refer to pages 14 to 18 of this report for further details of this discussion.


Famine and food insecurity

The conference observed that millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the 30 years since the Commission completed its work. Even so, famine and acute food insecurity continue to affect the citizens of several countries, particularly but not exclusively in Africa. While there is a global food surplus, variables such as climate change, water scarcity, population growth, armed conflict, economic mismanagement and inequitable trading relationships condemn many people to hunger.

In terms of famine prevention and response, the past three decades have witnessed many advances. Early warning systems have become more sophisticated and effective. The logistics of emergency relief have been strengthened. Cash-based assistance programmes have in some contexts replaced the distribution of food that has been procured and shipped from the other side of the world. Nutritional supplements are increasingly used to ensure that the most vulnerable members of affected populations do not succumb to hunger-related conditions.

In principle, famine and food insecurity can largely be averted, even in countries affected by extreme climatic conditions. But in too many situations, political considerations prevent effective action from being taken. Political leaders refuse to acknowledge the suffering of their citizens and fail to accept responsibility for taking appropriate action on their behalf. At the same time, donor state concerns that food aid will fall into the hands of terrorist and extremist groups has on some occasions led to a ‘safety first’ approach which deprives hungry people of the assistance they so urgently need.

Please refer to pages 19 to 21 of this report for further details of this discussion.