Dear United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,
Millions of people heard you. I heard you.
This is what you said before the World Humanitarian Summit.
Our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately injured and killed. Air strikes rip families apart. … The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits. (UNSG Summit Report ¶ 46)
Flouting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious … We can, and we must, do better. (¶ 48). Remaining silent while serious violations of international law are unfolding is morally unacceptable […] Our common humanity demands that we do everything we can to prevent and end violations and hold perpetrators accountable. (¶ 59).
Whenever serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law occur, Governments, global leaders and other relevant individuals must systematically condemn them. Even where we may not be able to stop violence and suffering immediately, we have a minimum responsibility to speak […] I have asked all United Nations senior officials to do so and I encourage all United Nations staff to act with moral courage in the face of early, serious and large-scale violations. I also exhort all relevant actors and stakeholders to end the double standard of condemning the violations of some but not of others. (¶ 62, emphasis added).
Let us make the Summit in Istanbul the turning point that the world sorely needs and the beginning of the change (¶ 180).
This is what you said after the World Humanitarian Summit:
State, civil society and humanitarian leaders repeatedly stated that international humanitarian and human rights law is more relevant than ever: it is the last protection against barbarity. We therefore must not take the easy way out and declare all civilians collateral damage. (Chair’s Summary p. 3)
There was wide agreement that unless we hold perpetrators to account, there will be no stopping this downward spiral. (Chair’s Summary p. 4). The World Humanitarian Summit has been a wake-up call for action for humanity. It has generated global momentum and political will to move forward on the Agenda for Humanity and the five core responsibilities to deliver better for people across the globe. (p. 7).
The Summit is a point of departure to act, but there must also be a destination … Let us now turn the Agenda for Humanity into an instrument of global transformation. (p. 8)
This is what you did earlier this week. You succumbed to political pressure and erased Saudi Arabia from the UN’s blacklist of those violating the rights of children (due to their often indiscriminate bombing in Yemen).
Here is what others think you did earlier this week (click): Amnesty International, War Child, and Human Rights Watch (and 35 other organizations). Here is what I think you did earlier this week: I think you gutted the World Humanitarian Summit. Without a global recommitment to political responsibility, legal obligations and humanitarian ideals, the Summit births nothing more than a broad set of bureaucratic aid system reforms.
I have not yet understood why this move leaves me so sad and so angry. After all, as an example of politics and power trumping the norms and principles of humanity, it seems emblematic of the current state of affairs to the point of banality. It exemplifies well the shortcomings of the United Nations and, more generally, global leadership. Could it be that your words pierced my cynicism?Touched my humanity? Could it be that I felt hope? Yes.
If May’s Summit functioned as a “wake-up call” then your actions this week signaled a death knell, clear notice that the most fundamental commitments to humanity were not reaffirmed, nor a new moral courage discovered. While I was never convinced the Summit was worth staging, I am certain it was not worth killing off so quickly.
Mr. Secretary General, this is the moment, a critical juncture for your World Humanitarian Summit and for your legacy. Stand up now. Put the Saudi-led coalition back on the list.
PS: And Mr. Secretary General, if you happen to run into other world leaders, could you ask why they do not loudly insist you hold the Saudis accountable (even in this small way) for their actions? Sadly, I think we know the answer. Back to business as usual: shared inhumanity, many irresponsible.