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From: "IRIN" <he...@irinnews.org>
Date: 1 Dec 2016 09:04
Subject: The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian
To: "ElisabethJanaina" <elisabethjana...@gmail.com>
Today's humanitarian news and analysis
The crisis of multilateralism and the future of humanitarian action
*"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the
new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms
appear.' - *Antonio Gramsci, *Prison Notebooks*, circa 1930.
Long before the November 2016 US elections, there were clear signals that
multilateralism was in crisis. In fact, Donald Trump’s election is just the
continuation of a downward spiral that has been under way for some time.
The most obvious symptom of this trend is the inability of the so-called
international community to address armed conflict in any meaningful way.
>From Afghanistan to Ukraine, from Libya to Yemen, from South Sudan to
Syria: the UN Security Council is blocked, and there is no respite in sight
for civilians. Many conflicts are now “IHL-free war zones”: international
humanitarian law is marginalised and humanitarian principles are jettisoned
– whether by state or non-state armed groups. Slaughter, torture, and
“surrender or starve” strategies thrive, despite much hand-wringing. Those
who do manage to flee war zones do not fare much better.
Well before Trump’s election, the cradle of the Western enlightenment,
Europe, had become a flag-bearer for an untrammelled rollback of rights.
Many state parties to the 1951 refugee convention have abandoned their
legal responsibilities, investing instead in deterrence measures aimed at
blocking those seeking refuge from the terror of war zones or from
tyrannical regimes. Europe is externalising its borders and pursuing
short-sighted and aggressive return policies, undermining refugees in
places such as Turkey and the Dadaab camp in Kenya, and making aid to the
Sahel and Afghanistan conditional on pushbacks or migrant suppression.
Meanwhile, the Global South, including some of its poorest countries,
continues to host 86 percent of the global refugee population
As the refugee convention looks increasingly tattered, other negotiations
on crucial issues have ground to a halt: witness the lack of any concrete
intergovernmental consensus since the Paris climate change agreement (which
is itself now in peril), including the absence of meaningful outcomes at
the three major humanitarian conferences held this past year (the
international Red Cross conference in December 2015
the World Humanitarian Summit
in May 2016, and the New York summits on refugees and migration in September
Issues are raised, the rhetoric is loud and pompous, but action itself is
avoided, or the can just kicked down the road.
More agreements are also falling apart. The erosion of the International
Criminal Court and significant hostility to the “Responsibility to Protect”
agenda, as well as the general decline of international respect for human
rights, may well signal the dawn of a “post-human rights era”, meaning that
the enforcement and expansion of human rights standards through binding
international law is in decline
Meanwhile, populism, nationalism, and jingoism advance all around Europe,
in Russia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Accompanying these trends is a
manifest decline in support for globalisation – and for international norms
– coupled with a rise in tensions around growing inequality, as power
shifts from West to East.
Under a Trump presidency, these and other “morbid symptoms” are likely to
intensify. This might include the United States distancing itself or even
withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement
cuts to UN budgets and other “unfriendly” international agencies, and the
slashing of US humanitarian and development aid, particularly to those
countries “that hate us”. It could also lead to further disarray in NATO
and in the post-Brexit EU, signalling a retreat from established or
traditional interstate diplomatic practice. The rise of populism in Europe
and despondency vis-à-vis the European project, the spread of
anti-politics, and the growth of the Uber economy, as well as narcissistic
cults of the individual only compound these symptoms. Echoes of the 1930s
perhaps, with an increasingly irrelevant UN following in the steps of the
League of Nations?
Changes to expect
It is not too early to start reflecting on the possible consequences of
rapidly declining multilateralism and its implications for global
governance, international law, the refugee regime, war-affected
communities, and humanitarian endeavour everywhere. By and large, it does
not look good. A few hypotheses on where we are headed:
- (Western) humanitarianism has reached its historical limits and is now
on the cusp of retreat. The transition from the romantic phase to the
technological, institutional, and governance phase is now complete. In
other words, the energy that made humanitarianism a means to accomplish
valuable ethical ends is waning. The chasm between charisma and bureaucracy
is likely to widen, and the propulsive force of the humanitarian “mobilising
may sputter. This myth provided a generation of aid workers, individually
and collectively, with answers to questions about their place and social
functions in the international arena. It has now lost its pathos. It may be
replaced by other mobilising myths (non-Western, sovereignty-based,
transformational, solidarity-based, or overtly politicised). There are no
easy recipes for tackling what has become a system-wide existential crisis.
- Multilateralism is in retreat and this is likely to continue for the
foreseeable future. This will have significant impact on humanitarian
action (funding, access, challenges to humanitarian principles, less
emphasis on protection). It will also affect the ability of the so-called
international community to address the factors that drive crises,
such as climate
and a faltering international peace and security apparatus. The void left
by the partial retreat of the US into isolationism combined with the global
war on terror, now euphemistically re-branded as “countering violent
extremism”, and a new coldish war will only deepen this humanitarian
malaise. A multi-polar world may not be as sympathetic to humanitarian
values and will pose new challenges to humanitarian actors worldwide and
particularly to Western-led humanitarianism, which will increasingly find
itself outside its domineering comfort zone.
- The functions that “humanitarian” action performs in the international
sphere will change, perhaps dramatically. Historically, humanitarian
endeavour – in its discourse, norms and practice – has grown in parallel
with the expansion of Western economic and cultural power. Humanitarian
action’s multiple functions have included acting as a conveyor belt for
Western values, lifestyles, and the promotion of the liberal agenda, while
making countries safe for capital. If the West is now in retreat, other
centres of humanitarian discourse and practice are bound to blossom and
grow. Meanwhile, Western humanitarian action is already being press-ganged
into the service of containment (Fortress Europe, for example). This
process will likely intensify. If so, this will be a major reversal for
humanitarianism as we know it. For decades, humanitarian action represented
the smiley face of globalisation. It was one of the West’s ways of opening
up to the rest of the world. Now, it is much more about closure, about
containment, about shutting the door. It is about keeping the bulk of
refugees and “survival migrants
away from the ring-fenced citadels of the North.
Caught between the pessimism of reason and the flagging optimism of will,
what is the reflective humanitarian to do?
Perhaps the first thing is to stand back from the current crisis, the
confusing background noise, these “morbid symptoms”, and ask: how did we
get here? What are the forces for change and how do we engage with them?
Organised humanitarianism is stuck in the eternal present and is poorly
equipped to adapt to a more complex, insecure, and threatening world.
"transformational change in the international system only happens in the
aftermath of a major shock"
A more narrowly focused “back to basics” humanitarian enterprise – smaller
in size, informed solely by the views and needs of the crisis-affected, and
focused on saving and protecting lives in the here and now – would not
necessarily be a bad thing.
It would perhaps be the best way of nurturing the values and ethos of an
enterprise that may be battered, bruised, and often abused but is still
often the only available safety net for people in extremis.
In any case, it is past time that organised humanitarianism acknowledged
that it is in crisis and came to grips with a possible reform agenda. Ideas
for change are already on the table. For example, the “Planning From the
report, available this week, offers a diagnosis of what ails the system and
a broad outline of what change could look like. (Disclosure: I am one of
the authors of the report).
It also underscores that transformational change in the international
system only happens in the aftermath of a major shock. Will the combination
of the crisis of multilateralism, climate change, ongoing vicious wars, and
massive displacement provide such an impetus?
What is certain is that the current humanitarian system, broke, broken or
both, won’t serve us well in the new international and political landscape
we face. The challenge is to foster one that will.
(TOP PHOTO: "Destruction" - the fourth in a five-painting series, "The
Course of Empire", by American artist Thomas Cole (1836). Via Wikimedia
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Humanitarianism at the crossroads Antonio Donini
<http:///authors/antonio-donini> IRIN <http:///byline/irin> GENEVA
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