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Leaders seek to defy sceptics at Istanbul humanitarian summit

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Istanbul, Turkey | AFP |

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday the burden of handling the world’s crises should be better shared, as leaders and aid groups sought to defy sceptics to find a breakthrough at an unprecedented aid summit in Istanbul.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gathered over 60 heads of state and government with top NGOs, aiming to better keep conflicts from erupting and ensure legal retribution for those guilty of humanitarian crimes.

Celebrity stardust was sprinkled by actors Daniel Craig, Forest Whitaker and Sean Penn, while top NGOs called for a wholesale reform of a now outdated humanitarian system.

With some 60 million people displaced around the world and at least 125 million needing assistance and protection in the biggest humanitarian crises since World War II, Ban said that the summit represented a chance to forge a “different future”.

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World leaders and heads of state pose for a family photograph on the first day of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday 23 May 2016. Uganda Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (2nd, top right) WHS COURTESY PHOTOS

But the two-day event has been shadowed by the boycott of medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and doubts that it can make any genuine impact.

“Let us seize this opportunity, let us make our mark as agents of change,” said Ban.

He warned that realising the aims was not “an easy task” and required a “political will on a scale we have not seen in recent years.”

James Bond star Craig told the world leaders: “This summit is about potential to start the biggest humanitarian movement in our history,” warning against “empty words without action.”

‘Avoiding responsibilities’

Host Erdogan emphasised the contributions of his country, which is hosting some three million refugees from the Syria and Iraq conflicts and, in a barb at the West, complained others were not sharing the burden.

“The current system falls short… the burden is shouldered only by certain countries, everyone should assume responsibility from now on,” he said.

“Needs increase every day but resources do not increase at the same pace. There are tendencies to avoid responsibility among the international community.”

“Turkey knows this bitterly,” he added, saying Ankara had spent $10 billion (nine billion euros) for hosting Syrian refugees compared to $450 million from the rest of the international community.

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Reprising a familiar theme, Erdogan also urged reform of the UN Security Council, saying the “fate of humanity” cannot depend on its five veto-wielding permanent members.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the highest profile guests at the summit, called for an end to empty pledges on aid that fizzled into nothing.

“Too many promises are made and then the money does not come for the projects — that must end,” said Merkel, adding that the world currently had no humanitarian system that was “compatible with the future”.

The commitments adopted by the states will be non-binding and while leaders like Merkel and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah are attending the summit, many other prominent figures were conspicuous by their absence.

David Miliband, the former British foreign minister who now heads the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said solutions were needed that were about “better aid and not just more aid.”

“The reason we are having a World Humanitarian Summit is that we need a different kind of aid system,” he said, adding the fact that 60 percent of refugees were now living in urban areas necessitated a major change.


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‘Fig leaf?’

Participants also expressed alarm over deteriorating observance of humanitarian law, with schools and hospitals regularly targeted in conflict.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said in a report almost half its schools had been hit by conflict in the last five years.

“It is absurd to expect humanitarian responses to improve at a time when the repeated bombing of field hospitals and routine targeting of civilians go unchecked,” Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty added in a statement.

Global organisations including the UN children’s agency on Monday and backed by former UK premier Gordon Brown launched a new global fund aiming to raise almost $4 billion to educate children hit by conflict and emergencies.

MSF, which is boycotting the event, said the summit risked being just a “fig leaf” for the world’s failure on humanitarian action.

“I regret very much that they came to that decision,” said UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson.

“One of the main purposes of this conference is our outrage against violations of international humanitarian law,” he added.

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