Humanitarianism at a crossroads

Monday December 5 2016

 

By Antonio Donini

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.

“Donald Trump’s election is just the continuation of a downward spiral”

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 theParis 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?

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.

The writer filed this article from Geneva