Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for September, 2016

Syria, Yemen and how double standards block the path to peace

 

 

The past week has been an unedifying one in the world of international diplomacy.

World leaders have been at the United Nations in New York for their annual gathering at the General Assembly where they immediately disappointed with a watered down agreement to consider reforming how they deal with the growing numbers of refugees.

If that were not enough, the proceedings were then overshadowed by an outbreak of finger pointing between the Americans and Russians over the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire.

Washington accused Russia of bombing the humanitarian convoy in Syria that killed at least 20 and undermining the ceasefire.

Russia denied it was involved. But that hasn’t stopped the Americans continuing to stoke outrage against Moscow in same week the US itself had helped undermine the ceasefire by killing 63 Syrian troops in an air strike – an attack the US insists was unintentional.

Whether or not Russia did carry out the convoy strike, and past experience of the veracity of American allegations in conflicts where it has taken clear sides gives pause for thought (remember Defense Secretary Cohen’s claim ahead of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 that 100,000 Albanians had been killed in Kosovo), Washington’s attempt to take the moral high ground over Syria is undermined by its actions in Yemen.

The Americans are supplying weapons and intelligence in support of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war that’s involved similar attacks on humanitarian workers, particularly hospitals and clinics.

Moscow is unlikely to feel under much pressure to change its approach in Syria as long as Washington doesn’t change its approach to Yemen

And it’s not just the Americans backing the Saudis.

As my former colleague, Robin Lustig, has pointed out in a powerful piece, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Teresa May, has brushed off criticism of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia emphasising Riyadh’s cooperation against Islamist terrorism.

The hypocrisy and double standards of the major powers and their allies – be they the Syrian or Saudi governments – are more than just words though.

They also directly undermine attempts to bring an end to the fighting and suffering of civilians that all parties claim to want – as I’ve argued before in the context of Ukraine.

With both sides effectively saying “do as I say, not as I do” and, in the eyes of their opponents, being rank dishonest, it makes it extremely difficult to build even the minimum of trust that’s needed for a durable peace effort.

As the siege of Syria’s second city Aleppo intensifies again and the Saudi campaign in Yemen grinds on, there is an urgent need for the main powers to get back round the table and at least agree to stop fuelling the conflicts.

But this week has shown that prospect seems remote.

So, one could forgive ordinary Syrians and Yemenis – living under siege and bombardment or having fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere – for looking at the images from New York and being reminded of Nero and his proverbial fiddling as Rome burned.

This week’s UN refugees summitry: a missed opportunity?

The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.

Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.

On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.

The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.

Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.

As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict  that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.

Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.

Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.

But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.

The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.

Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.

They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands  by war, oppression or poverty.

The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.

The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.

So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum to continue their work.

It needn’t be this way.

The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.

This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.

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