Jan Egeland|Published 23. Dec 2019
The 2020s must not become the decade of indifference. We must better protect people fleeing war and disaster.
Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and a former UN Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs.
What a difference a decade makes. 2010 was considered an exceptionally challenging year for global aid operations. Humanitarians were stretched to the limit responding to two unfolding mega-disasters: a devastating earthquake in Haiti and massive flooding in Pakistan. Relief organisations appealed for an unprecedented USD 11 billion to assist people in need across the world.
Fast forward ten years and the global aid appeal is two and a half times bigger. Twice as many people are in desperate need. On the eve of a decade that spawned tech billionaires and smart technology, more people are exposed to medieval cruelty than at any point since World War II.
This should not be how things stand. There are more innovative tools, funding and expertise available today than ever before to help communities in crisis. As UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, I initiated a humanitarian reform over a decade ago that has organised aid agencies to better assist millions of people in conflict and disaster areas. Fewer people now die on our watch because of a lack of lifesaving food, water and sanitation. Emergency education is reaching more children in conflict zones. Health services are available to communities previously left to fend for themselves.
However, we end the decade with a bleak realisation: despite all our resources, we are still failing to protect the most vulnerable. A food ration or blanket offers little consolation to communities being bombed, besieged and terrorised. International law and humanitarian principles are under attack. And with populist waves of nationalism on the rise, a fierce battle of moral values must be fought in the years ahead.
The battle to protect civilians
From Syria to the Sahel, we are witnessing indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals, schools and aid workers. Acts of brutality were equally deadly in the 1990s, but more than before we see global and regional powers add fuel to the fire by supporting opposing sides in cruel civil wars.
The lack of principled and coherent international action for human rights also fuels a new age of impunity for horrific violence, from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to the gang violence in Central America.
The Geneva Conventions saw their 70th anniversary this year. Their rules of war are still as relevant as they were in the aftermath of World War II. But what is sorely missing today are bold leaders standing united, ready to implement them at home and away, for allies as well as enemies. UN Security Council members should collectively demand justice and hold perpetrators to account, instead of turning a blind eye to such atrocities.
The battle of nationalism versus solidarity
In 2010, conflict drove some 43 million people from their homes. Ten years later well over 70 million have been ruthlessly displaced by violence and persecution. At the UN General Assembly in 2016, leaders vowed to better share responsibility for protecting and assisting people fleeing violence.
Sadly, a mosaic of broken promises will greet the new decade.
We walked away from the first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this month resigned to the fact that most borders are firmly shut to people seeking protection. Refugee quotas are slashed. Low-income host nations are given little international support. Large Asian and Gulf economies still avoid sheltering refugees. Europe and the U.S. continue their race to the bottom.
We cannot demand that a few poorer nations like Lebanon and Uganda shoulder the burden of sheltering families, while the richest and safest countries seal their borders and send a modest cheque in the post.
Politicians will continue to bow to national populism if we do not reject the false narrative of anti-immigrant propaganda. Refugees will lie in limbo.
The battle to keep humanitarian principles alive
Humanitarian principles are thus under mounting pressure. As independent aid organisations, we serve people most in need, wherever they are. But donor nations and governments parties to conflicts are increasingly penning ‘anti-terror’ legislation, making it more difficult for us to help civilians trapped in areas where listed terrorists operate.
The coming years will see governments set up a host of detailed regulations, commissions and control bodies that make it harder for us to access war zones where the most vulnerable communities are located.
Exceptions must be made to anti-terror laws for humanitarian operations, otherwise our negotiations with de-facto authorities will be criminalised, aid delayed, and innocent local communities – the victims of terror – struck twice.
Make leadership great again
Tomorrow’s picture looks bleak, but it does not need to become our reality. Just as an awakening is being led by a million schoolchildren around the world to prevent a climate catastrophe, a more energetic defence of humanity is needed for people struck by and fleeing from violence and disaster.
We need stronger moral leaders if we are to make real improvements to the lives of the millions in crisis. Today’s youth is acutely aware of our fragile, interconnected world, and the need for internationalism to meet the existential climate threat. They are more solutions-oriented, and less nationalistic and xenophobic than my own generation.
Herein lies hope. With these young people on the path to power, the next ten years could signal a turnaround from the negative trends of isolationism, nationalism and tribalism that we witness today.
We cannot let the 2020s become the decade of indifference.