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For UN, a Widening Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality

A photograph of José Vela Zanetti's mural "Mankind's Struggle for Lasting Peace" at the UN Conference Building

A photograph of José Vela Zanetti’s mural “Mankind’s Struggle for Lasting Peace” at the UN Conference Building , coutesy United Nations Photo/flickr

This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 17 June 2016.

Earlier this week, a damning report from advocacy group The Syria Campaign accused the United Nations of breaching its humanitarian principles by prioritizing cooperation with the Assad government “at all costs.” This is not the first time that such charges have been leveled. An internal inquiry into the UN’s response to the final days of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war found that officials privileged maintaining good relations with the Colombo regime over their responsibilities to protect human rights.

What is more, the UN has recently been at the receiving end of an avalanche of revelations that it has succumbed to pressure from it member states over its reporting and language:

  • Australia lobbied hard to ensure that UNESCO removed the Great Barrier Reef from a list of endangered world heritage sites, despite near universal consensus among scientists studying the reef that it is, indeed, deeply at risk as a result of climate change and runoffs from coastal farms and industrial plants.
  • Saudi Arabia threatened to defund UN programs, and to encourage other Islamic countries to do the same, if the UN did not remove a report’s references to patterns of violations against children in Yemen committed by the Saudi-led coalition.
  • Morocco threatened to withdraw support for UN operations in retaliation for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referring to Western Sahara as “occupied,” despite the fact that this is precisely the legal situation in that part of the world until a referendum on its future can be held.
  • Myanmar insisted that UN officials refrain from using the term “Rohingya” to refer to an ethnic minority in that country and has threatened to withdraw cooperation with any that do. Some, such as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Satish Nambiar, have complied with the regime’s demand, overlooking the right of groups to self-identify. Others, such as Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee continue to use the label and have faced vilification because of it.

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Against the Merger of Humanitarianism with Development and Security

This article was originally published by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on 8 June 2016. 

In the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul 23-24 May, the interconnections between humanitarianism, development and security were highlighted. Recognising that humanitarian assistance alone cannot address ‘the needs of over 130 million of the world’s most vulnerable people’, the conference chair’s summary report states: ‘A new and coherent approach is required based on addressing root causes, increasing political diplomacy for prevention and conflict resolution, and bringing humanitarian, development and peace-building efforts together’ (page 2). Similarly, the background report of the UN Secretary General – One Humanity: shared responsibility – prescribes the merger of humanitarian policies with peace and development agendas. These agendas include the prevention and management of conflict and disaster, the building of institutions conducive to ‘the protection of civilians’, the fight against terrorism, and the building of ‘resilient societies’.

Yet, while coordination across these policy domains is certainly needed, the current challenge for humanitarianism is rather to establish a clearer division of labour between them, where humanitarian relief retains its political neutrality, development aid its concern with justice, and where policies of peace and security maintain focused on the mitigation of international and civil war rather than a broader humanitarian agenda of ‘human security’.

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How to Rebuild Trust in the Humanitarian System

Haitian relief workers assist service members embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) unload food and water to aid those affected by recent hurricanes that have struck Haiti.

This article was originally published by the Global Observatory (IPI) on 4 May 2016.

The international humanitarian system is suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, not only because it lacks the capacity and funds to respond to the volume and complexity of current humanitarian needs, but also because the “authorizing environment” has changed: the system no longer represents the interests of today’s humanitarians or is able to instill trust in aid recipients.

Take places like Syria, where approximately 700 local organizations and diaspora groups have filled the void left by the absence of international relief organizations, which have been largely unable to operate in besieged areas since the conflict began. In Yemen, suspicion and mistrust by governments, armed groups, and communities themselves compel international aid organizations to work almost exclusively through local partners. According to surveys done by the accountability project Ground Truth, only one in six of those affected by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and one in 16 during the early response to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa felt that their needs were being met by aid organizations. » More

Growing Stress on Jordan: Contingency Planning Memorandum Update

An overview of Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, courtesy UNHCR Photo Unit/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations in March 2016.

In 2013, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Contingency Planning Memorandum “Political Instability in Jordan” warned that the biggest threat to the stability of the Hashemite Kingdom stemmed from local grievances eroding the regime’s core tribal base of support. Although economic privation, the slow pace of reform, and a widespread perception of corruption remain significant sources of popular frustration in Jordan, the palace has since vitiated its most potent tribal and Islamist domestic political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. But as the risk of domestic unrest has diminished, the potential for spillover from the Syrian conflict has grown, posing an increasing threat to Jordan.

New Concerns

Jordan has a long tradition of providing sanctuary for refugees, but the kingdom has reached the saturation point. Syrian refugees in Jordan—currently around 1.4 million—constitute a significant source of instability in the kingdom. Only half are registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and less than 10 percent live in formal refugee camps; the majority are spread throughout the country.

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Mediation Perspectives: Reframing the Charities and Terrorism Debate

Headline: Charity millions 'going to Syrian terror groups'

A recent headline in The Daily Telegraph. Photo: Howard Lake/flickr.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph ruffled a few feathers earlier this month by building a story around a few out-of-context remarks by the head of the UK’s Charity Commission to suggest that millions of pounds raised to assist victims of the conflict in Syria were being diverted to terrorist groups. The Charity Commission reacted swiftly to correct the story, pointing out that they possessed no evidence of any such diversions and that they work very closely with charities to minimize the risk that any could occur.

Fears of charitable donations being diverted away from their intended recipients are nothing new. Nor are accompanying fears that diverted money is ending up in the hands of people with less-than-good intentions. What is relatively new is how these fears are being addressed since the launching of the “global war on terror” in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

Humanitarian organizations have long recognized that they have a responsibility towards both their donors and their beneficiaries to ensure that aid reaches the people it was intended for. Many organizations have developed their own systems of checks and balances to ensure that it does. However, it has long been recognized, both by donors and charities, that in conflict and emergency situations no system is perfect and there is always a risk that some aid is diverted or ends up in the wrong hands. What has changed with the dominance of a counter-terrorism discourse is that this risk of diversion has been defined as a security threat due to the fear that those wrong hands are terrorist hands. » More

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