Ever heard of World Humanitarian Day? I feel guilty that I had not but it falls every year on August 19 marking the horrific bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad which cut short the lives of 22 United Nations staff. 2013 marked the most dangerous ever for international humanitarians with 155 aid workers killed, 134 kidnapped and over 170 seriously wounded. Already, this year 79 have been killed.
One of those was a close friend, Del Singh, blown up in café in Kabul in January. He had worked as international development expert working in conflict zones and disaster areas such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Palestine, Libya and Sierra Leone. The Taliban murdered a man whose sole aim was to help Afghanis and who loved the country. His story is like so many others. I think of Margaret Hassan, who ten years ago, as the head of Care International in Iraq, was kidnapped and murdered in Iraq. She was an Irish woman who had married an Iraqi, became a Muslim and had dedicated her life to helping Iraqis. Both died at the hands of fanatics and men of violence who had lost their humanity.
Many regimes and state forces have been as brutal. The Syrian government has deliberately targeted doctors and medical centers. Over the last three years, 38 Syria Red Crescent and seven Palestine Red Crescent staff and volunteers have died in Syria. It became a crime just to be caught with bandages in your car. Over the last month, 11 UNRWA personnel, 11 medical staff and eight firefighters lost their lives in Gaza. Seven were killed trying in vain to repair water and sanitation infrastructure damaged in the Israeli onslaught.
Every day humanitarian actors of all sorts put their lives on the line to help others. The nature of modern war has increased the risks. Think of those who have been delivering aid close to the front lines with Islamic State fighters, knowing that capture could lead to a medieval and horrific end. This places a huge burden on them. Who can forget the agony of UNRWA spokesman, Chris Gunness as he broke down live on air, for one moment unable to hold back the tears as he had to describe the aftermath of yet another U.N. school bombed by the Israelis? As he said, “What is happening in Gaza, particularly to the children, is an affront to the humanity of all of us.” Before the latest Gaza escalation he was tweeting the most dramatic apocalyptic images of Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus desperate to get the world to wake up to their plight.
Chris Gunness, like so many others, has not given up. So in the darkness of unfolding regional cataclysmic catastrophes let us celebrate humanity at its finest even as we witness it at its worst. Their work reinforces our faith in humanity.
The scale of conflicts has been growing but even more worryingly the type. Civilians make up around 80 percent of fatalities as they are frequently the targets of conflicts used to promote fear and massive ethnic or sectarian displacement. Around 1500 people a day are killed in conflicts around the world and there are over 27 million internally displaced by conflict (about a quarter of whom are Syrian).
Many international statesmen and political figures took to the Twitter to mark World Humanitarian Day. As indeed they should because the underlying message of World Humanitarian Day is that the international community has systematically failed these victims of conflict and undermined the heroism of these humanitarians.
Hypocrisy crashes to new lows
The escalation of these armed conflicts is not just a collective failure to resolve them but all too frequently results from a deliberate effort to stoke them up. International and regional actors have done little to calm the Syria crisis with telling consequences. Every single permanent member of the U.N. Security Council has a bloody record for decades over Iraq. On Palestine, the donor community has stomped up over $20 billion since the 1993 Oslo accords but without demanding a resolution to the conflict and an end to occupation. In effect, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is being subsided, where it bombs and destroys, and the donors pay and rebuild.
If our leaders want to posture about the heroism of humanitarian aid workers across the world, they themselves need to answer some tough questionsChris Doyle
Of course, Israel is one of many states to be armed while violating international law. U.S. hypocrisy crashed to new lows when in 24 hours it condemned Israel for the bombing of another U.N. school as “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” whilst simultaneously resupplying Israel with ammunition. Russia has not let up in its arming of the Assad regime, untroubled by the barrel bombing of Aleppo or se of chemical weapons. The complete lack of accountability for crimes committed merely allows for repeat atrocities.
But why are there 12 billion bullets produced every year? The arms trade is booming, with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and Italy accounting for 85 per cent of all sales. Progress on the International Arms Trade Treaty has been too slow. So as these leaders praise these humanitarian workers, I doubt many of the latter would spend $1747 billion a year (around 2.4 per cent of world GDP) on weapons.
Overall, the U.N. needs $16.9 billion for 2014 to assist 50 million people in conflict and disaster zones around the world, the largest total ever sought. Yet the U.N. has so far only succeeded in raising 30 per cent of that figure. Too many donors have failed to meet the commitment of contributing 0.7% of their gross national product (GNP) to the development of poor countries. In 2013, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom achieved this.
If our leaders want to posture about the heroism of humanitarian aid workers across the world, they themselves need to answer some tough questions. What part have they played in ending these conflicts? How are they addressing a decaying world order? Do they accept the need to hold war criminals to account? Are they prepared to cut down meaningfully on both arms production and trade? And will they instead not just commit to but deliver on the miserly figure of 0.7% aid contribution? Will they take some of the tough decisions that even starts to match the bravery of those they honor?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.