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MENA Consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit, Remarks by António Guterres, UNHCR, 3 March 2015

Speeches and statements

MENA Consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit, Remarks by António Guterres, UNHCR, 3 March 2015

3 March 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Among the many meetings to prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit, this one is decisive, as the humanitarian crises facing this region represent some of the biggest challenges for the international humanitarian response system today.

The Syria crisis is the worst humanitarian disaster of our times, with one in two Syrians forced from their homes and displaced either inside the country or across borders. The refugee influx has had enormous consequences for host countries and communities, and people are becoming increasingly vulnerable as the conflict drags on.

In addition to Syrians, the spill-over of the crisis into Iraq has displaced some 2.2 million Iraqis internally and over 220,000 to neighbouring countries. And elsewhere in the Arab world, there are more than 400,000 internally displaced people in Libya, some 330,000 in Yemen, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, the Sudan and other countries seeking safety in the region.

Great challenges can also bring opportunities. I would like to speak about three issues that represent both, and that can help us rethink and strengthen humanitarian response.

First, values. This is, to me, the central question of the World Humanitarian Summit: how to arrive at a common understanding of the universal values that underpin our humanitarian work, and how to shape this understanding into a truly universal approach to the expression of humanitarian values and principles; to effective forms of working together to assist those in need; and to the respect for humanitarian space.

It is obvious that a truly universal humanitarian system can never be achieved by translating the perspectives from one part of the world into a "one size fits all" approach. Instead we need to expand and spell out something that is already there - the shared basis for our values as humanitarians. Only with this understanding can we go beyond the essentially Western creation that is the present multilateral humanitarian system, and build a true universal partnership that can draw on the totality of efforts and resources to meet humanitarian needs.

Refugee protection is an excellent example for the fact that this common basis already exists - that humanitarian values are indeed universal, but are being expressed differently in different cultures. While many large refugee-hosting countries have never signed the 1951 Convention, their actual policies reflect a generosity towards people seeking protection that is deeply rooted in their traditions and their beliefs.

All major religious value systems embrace humanity, caring and respect, and the tradition of granting protection to those in danger. The principles of modern refugee law have their oldest roots in these ancient texts and traditions.

Hindu mythology and Buddhist teachings and history include many stories of people finding safety in another location after having escaped mistreatment and discrimination. The central mantra of "the guest is God" in the Hindu Upanishads expresses the fundamental importance of hospitality. The broader concept of Dharma embodies the task to do one's duty, including an obligation to the community, which should be carried out respecting values such as non-violence and selfless service. The concept of "Karuna", or compassion, is a fundamental principle in all different traditions of Buddhism, embodying the qualities of tolerance, non-discrimination, inclusion and empathy for the suffering of others.

The three Abrahamic faiths share narratives of flight from persecution and the search for a protected place. The Holy Family's flight from Bethlehem is a central story in the Christian faith, as is the exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt for Judaism. Protection of the stranger is one of the most prominent tenets of the Jewish faith, which can be found in the Book of Leviticus in the Torah: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 19:33-34) Jewish law also states that it is prohibited to surrender any innocent person if that is likely to put their life at risk, which is very similar to the modern notion of non-refoulement, one of the cornerstones of international refugee law.

And for Muslims, the Islamic epoch begins and takes its name, Hejira, from the flight of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions to Medina. The Holy Qur'an calls for the protection of the asylum-seeker (Al-mustamin), whose safety is irrevocably guaranteed under the institution of Aman. This generous treatment is the same for Muslims and non-Muslims, as set out in the Surat Al-Tawbah: "And if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he will be secure. That is because they are a people who do not know." (Surah 9:6) The extradition of "Al-mustamin" is explicitly prohibited - an ancient source for the modern protection notion of non-refoulement.

More broadly, the humanitarian spirit of helping those in need is embodied in the third pillar of Islam, Zakat or Zakah, which makes it mandatory for every Muslim to give alms to the needy - 2.5 percent or one-fortieth of their wealth exceeding the basic necessities (nisaab). This is considered to have the double benefit of purifying oneself spiritually, and helping those in need.

Zakat also represents the concept of needs-based assistance. The Holy Qu'ran prescribes eight categories of people who can receive zakat, notably the poor and the needy (fuqara and masakeen). And in the words of the Prophet (PBUH), the best alms-giving is that in which one hand gives alms without the other hand knowing; underlining a principle humanitarian organizations all over the world aspire to - that assistance should be based on needs, and that one should not boast about the help given to the vulnerable.

But beyond charity, there are many studies on the convergence of international humanitarian law and Islamic traditions and legal texts. Both the Qu'ran and the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) contain the obligation not to attack non-combatants or destroy non-military objects, to respect certain limits of warfare, and to treat prisoners of war humanely.

These are only some of the examples for the universal basis of humanitarian values. But of course it is one thing to recognize these commonalities and the enormity of humanitarian needs in today's world. Translating this common basis into truly common humanitarian action follows logically from this recognition, but is much more difficult to achieve. Even today, as our global partnership is stronger than ever before, there is still too much separation between the different spheres of global humanitarian action.

I hope that the preparatory process to the World Humanitarian Summit, and the summit itself, will enable the inclusive and focused dialogue that is necessary to achieve agreement on how to reach this goal. Allow me just a few remarks about some of the core principles the have to shape such a common approach.

Protection of the most vulnerable must be at the center of our common action, as indeed it already is for many programmes carried out by a wide variety of actors from the region and internationally. Protecting women and children, the elderly, and persons with special needs is crucial to the success of any response, as they are most often those who are most affected and most at risk.

Ensuring this protection focus also means building our programmes with the participation of those we aim to help, by consulting them in the design and implementation of humanitarian programmes. This will help humanitarians be more accountable to those we serve, and to those who fund our work.

Finally, there can be no effective humanitarian response without good coordination - light, effective, and delivery-focused coordination. Finding a common approach to global humanitarian work will need to take all of these factors into account, but also allow for sufficient flexibility to ensure it can accommodate different expressions of common humanitarian principles and priorities.

The second challenge and opportunity I would like to speak about briefly is that of innovation. It is often said that unprecedented crises require unprecedented responses. By its sheer magnitude and complexity, the Syria crisis has both forced and encouraged humanitarian actors to rethink the way assistance is provided, simply because business as usual is insufficient to address the needs.

Our work has changed quite fundamentally, also due to the fact that over 80% of the refugees in the region live outside of camps, which requires different forms of outreach and assistance delivery. In Lebanon and Jordan, UNHCR and its partners have set up websites allowing refugees to communicate directly with the agencies, ask questions and get information about the registration process.

In Jordan, and increasingly in other countries, biometric registration is used for refugees, with iris scan technology also making targeted assistance to the most vulnerable more effective. The expanded use of unconditional cash grants for very vulnerable families is another example of innovation that can reduce transaction costs and increase the protection value for refugees. When families can choose themselves how to meet their priority needs rather than depending on decisions made for them by someone else, this freedom of choice increases their dignity and, as studies are starting to show, helps to improve their overall quality of life. These innovative approaches to humanitarian work should be expanded further to allow us to meet the challenges of the future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The third challenge and opportunity is related to funding. The humanitarian needs across the globe are enormous, and continue to grow at a much faster rate than available funding, bringing the humanitarian financing system close to bankruptcy.

In this context, I would like to underline the vital importance of the generous and extremely important contributions provided by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia through the multilateral system, in addition to their own channels. Without this extraordinary support, we would not have been able to reach some of the most vulnerable refugees and other persons in need. Other countries of the Gulf region have also made important efforts to help the victims of the Syria and Iraq crises, through large-scale in-kind donations or successful private fundraising campaigns. Humanitarian agencies have been making enormous efforts to ensure that the maximum amount of funding reaches people in need directly.

We must do everything we can to make this growing cooperation even stronger. The past two years have shown that by working closely with multilateral organizations, in addition to their more traditional support mechanisms, donors from this region are able to play a stronger role in the international humanitarian community, one that is more commensurate with their traditional generosity. Our closer partnership has also helped us ensure the biggest gaps are filled first, and to reduce duplication. I hope that the common humanitarian approach we want to build can grow from the foundations of this excellent joint work.

We will also continue expanding opportunities of cooperation with the global private sector. In a world of tightening public budgets and growing private wealth, we need a massive scale up of support from business leaders, corporations and private foundations - in terms of shared expertise and funding support to humanitarian operations, but also more broadly, for example by providing opportunities for employment in host countries for both locals and refugees.

Within the UN system, it is also essential to think out of the box and be more creative when it comes to funding emergency response. With humanitarian needs rising exponentially, and displacement crises getting more protracted, it is obvious that relying on voluntary donations makes humanitarian response inherently insufficient, unpredictable and less efficient than is needed. This is why, in the future, we must find ways to ensure humanitarian action - at least for mega crises such as the one we are facing in this region - can rely partially on assessed contributions by UN member states.

But none of this will be enough.

More fundamentally, we have to review the relationship between humanitarian and development funding. The totality of international humanitarian budgets reaches just 10% of what is available globally for development cooperation. But in the current context of multiplying conflict, development funds are not accessible quickly enough in many situations where they are needed, and humanitarian actors are again and again forced to act as substitutes for the absence of structural assistance. Humanitarian aid only gets a fragment of the resources, but it often has to cover things it really should not.

Development agencies, donors and international financial institutions must work together to increase flexibility and complementarity between short and longer-term interventions, and to be present on the ground from the very beginning of a crisis. It is in our common interest, and our collective responsibility, to ensure that "bridging the gap" is more than a slogan. But this requires strong political leadership to change objectives, priorities and above all, the organizational culture of development cooperation.

Here in the region, the Regional Refugee and Response Plan for Syrian refugees and their hosts aims to build stronger links between humanitarian and development responses. As the Syria situation becomes more protracted, humanitarian assistance alone is unsustainable, and interventions to build the resilience of refugees and host communities alike become more and more crucial. As we look ahead to the third pledging conference in Kuwait which the Emir and the Government of Kuwait have once again generously agreed to host, it is clear that what will be needed there are commitments not only from humanitarian donors, but from development actors, to fund both short-term and resilience-oriented programmes.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I know that these challenges and opportunities I have outlined - values, innovation, and funding - will inform many of your discussions over the next two days. I believe that, as an international humanitarian community, we owe it to the people we serve to remain focused on the overall principles guiding our work, and on the ultimate aim of ensuring better delivery. Maintaining the integrity of humanitarian space is an important consideration in this process.

But ultimately, no matter how much we improve and strengthen humanitarian action, it will never be more than a palliative. Many of today's fundamental challenges to human society - be it conflict, climate change, or the spread of Ebola - can only be addressed if political leaders truly leave behind their differences and contradictions and seriously commit themselves to working together. At the end of the day, humanitarian problems can only be effectively resolved with political solutions. That, too, will need to be one of the realities the World Humanitarian Summit must take into account.

Thank you very much.