Political violence, increased weather threats, and the rise of strongmen will be key drivers of crises in 2018, experts told IRIN at the World Economic Forum this week.
The Global Humanitarian Outlook, convened by IRIN News and the Overseas Development Institute in Davos, Switzerland, brought together UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, professor and former Mauritanian foreign minister Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, and ODI’s Managing Director Sara Pantuliano.
Here are key highlights of their conversation with IRIN Director Heba Aly:
End of so-called Islamic State? Not so fast
The Iraqi and Syrian governments have both proclaimed victory over the militant group IS in recent months as it has lost swathes of territory in the region and seen its leadership decimated. But in the wake of a deadly, IS-claimed attack this week on aid agency Save the Children’s compound in Afghanistan, Mohamedou, author of ‘A Theory of ISIS’, warned of prematurely claiming victory.
“It’s a misleading narrative… This is the evil genius of [former US president] George W. Bush – to have couched the ‘war on terror’ in those terms – that there’s a sense, fundamentally, of closure that would come with bringing down physically, quantitatively what is a societal, what is a social, what is a political problem, what is a historical issue…” He recalled similar perceptions a decade ago when the Islamic State of Iraq, the successor to al-Qaeda, appeared “defeated” after a US military surge, “and then we came back to see that another much more powerful entity came behind, which was [IS].”
While the IS of the last few years is “for all practical purposes gone”, the group is mutating, repositioning, and regrouping into “an entity that has become much more transnational, much more global,” Mohamedou added, pointing to specific risks in Libya and the Sinai region of Egypt.
What about Syria? Any progress?
Lowcock, the UN’s relief chief, described a very mixed picture after a recent trip to Syria, which, in March, will enter its eighth year of war.
“There are certainly parts of the country where things are calmer than they were two or three years ago… Equally, the situation has gotten a lot more complex and there’s obviously been a very unsettling spike in the violence over the last three months or so.”
In particular, he pointed to the sieges of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside the capital, Damascus, as well as in the towns of Fua and Kefraya; the “extraordinary” amount of exploded ordnance in Raqqa; the 50,000 people stuck on the “berm” between the Jordanian and Syrian borders; the Turkish advance into Afrin; and the Syria government and Russian-backed operations in Idlib.
Lowcock was most concerned by the limited aid access to alleviate the “very, very bad” situations in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. “For example, we haven’t been able to get a single convoy into Eastern Ghouta since November,” he said.
And he was pessimistic about ongoing peace negotiations, saying: “it’s not the obvious moment to be expecting to make lots of progress on that, when we see all of this military activity on the ground.”
For Roth, of Human Rights Watch, a lack of pressure on war criminals is making matters worse. He criticised Lowcock and the wider humanitarian community for failing to call out those responsible for atrocities.
“This is a common approach among humanitarians to say, ‘Oh there are needs; it doesn’t really matter who did what; we’re just going to try to get food and shelter and medicine to people and that’s for the good’…
“It isn’t just that there is a siege in Eastern Ghouta; the Syrian army is pursuing a war crimes strategy of starving 390,000 civilians in order to force the surrender of this territory. It’s not just there is military activity in Idlib, but it is that Russian Syrian bombers are either deliberately attacking civilians and civilian institutions or firing utterly indiscriminately… This is not just a matter of semantics; this is a matter of how you put pressure on the warring parties that are causing this humanitarian crisis because they are violating the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions.”
Roth said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “beyond shaming” now, but that the international community still had leverage over Russian President Vladimir Putin because of his interest in lifting sanctions imposed in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, and in normalising relations with Europe.
“The international community is sophisticated enough that it can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Roth said. “By all means, press for humanitarian aid, try to have peace talks – yes. But don’t do that in lieu of pressure on people who are doing deliberate slaughter… Until we recognise that there are human rights atrocities, mass atrocities, at the base of this humanitarian catastrophe…we’re not going really get to the heart of it.”
Congo “could explode”
Apart from Syria, Roth’s big worry for 2018 was the unravelling of the Democratic Republic of Congo as President Joseph Kabila clings to power and unrest swirls around the country.
Read our in-depth report: Crumbling Congo – the making of a humanitarian emergency
Roth accused Kabila not only of killing protesters in the capital, but also of fomenting armed conflict in the Kasai region and the Kivu provinces in the east, to maintain power.
“If the country is at war, you can’t hold elections and he doesn’t have to step down.”
Among several Western and African states, he said, “there is a recognition that if you don’t address the political and human rights sources of the problem, Congo could utterly explode… Congo is always a bit of a mess, but it could be so much worse if we don’t get Kabila to step down within a year.”
New crises on the horizon
The Overseas Development Institute’s Pantuliano sounded the alarm over two countries where human rights abuses, economic deterioration, and societal fracture are ripe to spawn larger scale humanitarian crises in 2018.
“Venezuela should really worry us on a daily basis,” she said, citing political persecution, people queuing for food, challenges accessing medicine, and tens of thousands of people fleeing.
”The situation is really on the brink, but does not attract the level of attention and engagement that it should attract before it becomes too late.”
Her second choice was Mozambique, where a resurgence of tension between militant group RENAMO and the government, human rights abuses against civilians by both sides, climatic pressures (both erratic rains and heavy levels of flooding), and a “perfect storm on the economic side”, have all collided to start driving up the number of vulnerable people.
“These are all signs that come together to signal that an engagement is really critical at an early stage to prevent a crisis from escalating and then becoming a really difficult, intractable humanitarian crisis,” she said.
Pantuliano also flagged the alarming homicide rate in El Salvador that drove 90,000 people out the country in 2017.
She urged humanitarian organisations to push harder and earlier in emerging crises, and to intervene before it is too late.
The rise of the strongmen
Mohamedou expressed dismay at the “definitive return with a vengeance of authoritarianism around the world” – from the United States to Egypt, “by way of a number countries around the world in Europe, in Asia and in Africa”.
“Authoritarianism is … normalising racism, normalising sexism, normalising discrimination, diminishing the importance of human rights. And that actually feeds into the social drivers that are at the heart of the conflicts.”
Most of the conflicts of the 20th century, he said, are a result of long-festering and unresolved societal problems.
“As a historian, we see this happening in slow motion… Take a look at a country like the United States, for instance… look at the return of racial tension, things that we thought were solved in the ‘60s and ‘70s… these are the type[s] of issues that you should be addressing so that they don’t materialise [again]. Look at a country like Myanmar, where essentially the ethnic and religious cleansing of a people is dealt with very late in the game. And the first word we hear from the president of that country is what? Terrorism...
“It might get worse before it gets better when it comes to that particular political dynamic.”
Read IRIN’s in-depth: The denied oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya people
Turning to climate change impacts on humanitarian issues, from drought to extreme weather events, Lowcock foresaw greater risks ahead.
“We need to get ready for growing and increasing ferocity of storms and weather-related events in parts of the world which are vulnerable…. Those storms we saw through the Caribbean were not like anything that had been seen…
His “overall anxiety”, he said, was that countries were not adequately investing in preparing for the increasing number of natural disasters they are likely to face, by changing their standards, norms, and behaviours to build better resilience.
However, he highlighted improvements in the ability to track storms in advance and the early success of special insurance schemes that provided money to pasts of the disaster-stricken Caribbean within days.
“In previous eras, the loss of life through those storms would have been much higher.”
See IRIN’s in-depth report: The hurricanes of 2017
The worst of times?
In a recent lecture, former administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Gayle Smith, said: “I’ve never seen a time that has worried me more”, and yet by several key markers, as Aly, IRIN’s director, pointed out, current levels of human progress are unprecedented. So, which way are things actually headed?
“We’ve got a long way to go, but definitely there is some progress in managing some crises,” Pantuliano said.
She recalled multiple simultaneous emergencies in the 1990s, including in Angola, Sudan, Somalia, the Balkans, and Rwanda, saying: “We tend, unfortunately, also for fundraising purposes, to exaggerate the situation which we’re in, but we need to acknowledge that, yes, as a system, we’ve gotten better.”
One example, Pantuliano said, is the humanitarian sector’s improved ability to respond to natural hazards, “which means there can be more focus on the more intractable, difficult, protracted crises… We’ve [still] got to get a lot better. But, incrementally, there are steps in the right direction.”
Lowcock identified the need for the international community to develop a “toolkit” for interacting with dozens of countries like South Sudan, Burundi, and Central African Republic that stand out from the overall trend of progress and “seem to be stuck in a cycle of violence and economic failure and instability and conflict and human rights abuses”. He described this as “the next big strategic challenge for the world as a whole over the next generation”, and said, “the things we’re doing are not moving those countries in the [right] direction fast enough.”
Mohamedou argued it was political will and leadership that was lacking, not a toolkit.
Lowcock painted UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ conflict prevention agenda as a reason for optimism, but admitted that the UN’s success is largely dependent on the willingness of states. “The countries of the world have to decide how effective they want the UN to be,” he said. Guterres, he argued, has set out “a very clear and coherent” set of priorities – like preventive diplomacy and more effective peacekeeping operations – that can make a difference. “But the trick is: what is it that’s going to happen to cause the member states as a group to buy enough of that package?”
But two of the other panelists felt humanitarianism needed to rediscover its “humanity” and its “ethos”.
“[There] has been an excessive bureaucratisation, a technocratic approach,” Mohamedou said, “that does take away, essentially, the humanity at the heart of the humanitarian [action] and human rights...
For Roth: “There’s a need to look this in the eye and actually call a spade a spade… There’s too many people involved in a whitewashing of what’s happening… The United Nations and the major powers of this world have to step up and address this in a way that brings back diplomacy, that brings back the values, that brings back the ethos of humanitarian work.”
For more on the humanitarian sector's ability to respond to the crises ahead, listen to IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker's keynote speech at the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin.
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