New York, NY, November 17, 2021 — Thank you very much for inviting me to celebrate the tenth anniversary of AidEx and to speak about the challenges we as civil society leaders face right now. I take great pride in being a member of civil society and the responsibility we have to ensure governments do not lose sight of the human beings that suffer the consequences or enjoy the benefits of decisions made in national and regional capitals around the world. I always say that big change comes from this combination of government leadership, business and NGO innovation, and mass citizen mobilization, but it does not necessarily come in that order. So every single one of you in this room has a role to play in that alliance for change.
My perspective comes from that of a particular organization focused on people living in crisis. The International Rescue Committee was founded by Albert Einstein in New York in the late 1930s to support people fleeing persecution at the onset of World War II. Today we are one of the world’s largest international aid organizations, helping people whose lives are shattered by conflict or disaster survive, recover and gain control of their lives. We have more than 30,000 workers – employees and volunteers – in nearly 200 field sites in over forty countries around the world. The vast majority of these staff, over 95 per cent, are locally hired.
On our plate at the moment are a growing number of crises. The escalating crisis in Tigray, the fallout from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan including supporting Afghans seeking refuge in the United States, the protracted conflict in Yemen.
The argument I am going to make today is as follows:
- That the growing number of crises represent not just a quantitative challenge for the humanitarian and development sectors, because more people are in need, but a qualitative challenge, because the drivers of crisis are outstripping the responses;
- That the pressure on civil society in the so called “shrinking humanitarian space” is only part of a bigger story, which I call the “rise of impunity”;
- And that this impunity comes from and represents an imbalance in power, and that as we consider our responses as individuals, organizations, and as a sector, we need to think about what we do as part of a struggle to re-establish a balance of power between those with power and those without.
A CHANGING CONTEXT
We are meeting at a time of unprecedented humanitarian need. The number of people globally in need of assistance tripled between 2015 and 2021, rising to 235.4 million – up by 40% on the number of people in need in 2020. 45 million people are on the edge of famine across 43 countries. Over the past decade, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) rose from 16 million in 2010 to a historic record of over 40 million, while the refugee population doubled to 30 million. And women and girls are paying the greatest cost, along with minority and marginalized groups. Of the 10 countries where it is least safe to be a woman or girl according to the Women Peace and Security Index, 6 are on the IRC’s top 10 Watchlist countries of greatest concern.
A triple crisis of conflict, climate change, and Covid is driving need for humanitarian aid, and setting back efforts at development. There has been a 10% rise in the number of conflicts since the end of the Cold War, driven primarily by a 600% increase in international civil conflicts – those crises involving a foreign actor. These conflicts are more deadly and harder to resolve, leading to greater displacement and greater damage to civilian infrastructure. These conflict-affected states are also the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of the climate crisis, and they are the least likely to be vaccinated against Covid, which means these crises compound one another.
But at the same time that humanitarian needs are on the rise, international and domestic politics around the world are questioning the basics of the international legal regime.
First and foremost is the erosion of protections for civilians and aid workers in war zones. There are growing numbers of civilian victims of war – an average of 38,500 civilians are killed in conflict each year, more than double the average five years ago and nearly seven and a half times the average in 2008. There are more attacks on health facilities: far from abating during the global pandemic, these attacks have only worsened, with more health care workers killed in 2020 than in 2019. There is more ethnic cleansing. There are more killings of aid workers – 8,500 attacks on aid worldwide leading to the death of 446 aid workers since 2016
Second, we’ve seen the undermining of rights for asylum-seekers and migrants. Europe’s response to forced migration has increasingly seen people being prosecuted and harassed for acts of solidarity towards refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, including for the essential acts of handing out warm clothes, offering shelter, and saving lives at sea. People who have helped refugees and migrants have been threatened, smeared, intimidated, harassed, and dragged through the courts to face punishment simply for helping others in need. Now we see refugees and asylum seekers being used as political pawns by Belarus, with little access to humanitarian or legal assistance.
Third, governments around the world are shrinking the space for civil society to operate in. More than a hundred governments have introduced restrictive laws limiting the operations of civil society organizations, while CIVICUS reports that only 3.4% of the world’s population lives in countries with open civic space, a quarter in closed societies, and the vast majority of people - 70% - live in societies with narrow, oppressed or obstructed civic space.
In extreme forms, this is part of the rise of authoritarian government and democratic recession. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only 8.4 per cent of the world’s citizens live in countries classified as “fully democratic”. The Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg says we are living through a “third wave of autocratisation.” Since 2006, the number of countries experiencing a deterioration of their democracy has outnumbered those who have experienced an improvement in their democracy, with 2020 being the worst year in that period.
IMPUNITY ON THE RISE
These trends are not simply the unintended consequences of a world in chaos. In fact, I would argue that these trends are consequences of deliberate, intentional, and strategic choices made by state and non-state actors operating in conflict zones and crises around the world. And the lesson increasingly being learned by these parties to conflicts is that the “law is for suckers,” and that in fact the absolute rights to life and to protection afforded to civilians in war zones by the Geneva Conventions or the rights afforded to refugees under the Refugee Convention will not be enforced by the international community. The trend is towards a situation where “might makes right,” and that is a very dangerous future.
This is what I call the “Age of Impunity” because I believe the abuses I’ve highlighted here are not just isolated incidents, but part of a broader global shift in our politics, our economics, and the global system. We increasingly see impunity – the capacity of actors to commit crimes without facing justice – because of growing concentration of power and an undermining of systems of accountability to create checks on that power.
Impunity in war zones is the international counterpart to the decline of democracy at home. It is no surprise to see the same political forces attack the rule of law domestically as well as internationally. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
These two trends reinforce each other. John Ikenberry, a professor in politics and international affairs at Princeton University, has made a compelling argument that the building of the international rules-based order after 1945 was conceived as a bulwark against democratic erosion. So today, what is called “democratic recession” undermines international law and institutions, and the retreat from the principles and ideals of a rules-based order undermines democratic arrangements at home.
THE FIGHT BACK
The only way to turn back the tide of impunity, and with it, the attacks on civilians in conflict and the crackdown on civil society organisations and aid work, is a concerted effort to shift the balance of power in favor of accountability. Specifically, we need a reassertion of what John Kenneth Galbraith in 1952, talking about the US economy, called “countervailing power”. The idea of countervailing power is simple: where impunity is caused by an imbalance of power in the interests of the powerful, the restoration of balance takes countervailing power.
Where impunity thrives on secrecy, countervailing power demands transparency. Where impunity calls investigations “foreign meddling”, countervailing power insists on the facts. Where impunity consummates imbalances of power, countervailing power seeks to redress the balance, with opposing power in return.
The fightback will depend on five key elements:
Values. We don’t need new laws or values. We need to reassert the laws and values that exist and make us strong. The UN Charter which emphasizes the rights of individuals; the Convention on Refugees which commits us to supporting the world’s most vulnerable; the Geneva Conventions which reject the most brutal aspects of war; and the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. They are the right commitments. They need to be upheld for the modern world. That means really believing it when we say every individual, including all minorities, and in the case of women and girls a majority of the population that suffers from multiple inequalities.
Witness. The first step in creating accountability for abuses is to get the facts out. We need the independent, principled, and loud voice of the UN now more than ever. Unfortunately the power of the UN to bear witness to what is happening on the ground is being compromised, for instance in the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to not renew the mandate of the UN Group of Eminent Experts in Yemen. Luckily, others like the New York Times, Bellingcat, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are trying to fill the void, but they are fighting an uphill battle. Regional and specialized organizations, including perhaps those like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), should take on the task of independently investigating, reporting, and assigning attribution for abuses. The EU’s proposed coordination mechanism for monitoring IHL violations is another step in the right direction and we hope to see further action on this point at the European Humanitarian Forum in January.
Pressure. Governments who do support civil society and the need for accountability in conflict zones have a particularly important role to play in putting pressure on others. Next month, the United States will host a Summit for Democracy, which is meant to be a rallying point for the world’s liberal democracies, setting out a path forward in the fight against authoritarianism, corrupt, and human rights abuses around the world. But there is a danger that the focus on the word democracy misses the secret ingredient that actually drives the power of democracy – accountability.
This is an important opportunity for supporters of accountability to put pressure on their fellow democratic states to uphold their own commitments to IHL and the rights of migrants and to support, not crackdown on humanitarian and civil society organisations. This includes mobilizing domestic legal tools such as the application of universal jurisdiction for war crimes and economic assets like Magnitsky-style sanctions.
Representation. The UN and other multilateral institutions, including the European Union and African Union, are only as strong as member states. But officials have duties to uphold their founding charters. The P5 needs to justify their power in the UNSC by the power of their example, ensuring their diplomats, their armed forces, their peacekeepers and their governments live up to the highest standards of the body. UN member states must ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is actually universal and applied to all member states, regardless of their size and power. And UN leadership must seek and speak the truth no matter how powerful the state, how sensitive the topic, or how uncomfortable the question.
Unity. Finally, the tide of impunity can only be reversed through a united coalition of accountability comprised of civil society organizations like all of us, supportive governments such as those across the EU, and private sector partners who understand the danger of unaccountable power on their core interests.
We have seen what happens when the rule of law is for some, not for all. It is a race to the bottom that consumes and threatens each and every one of us. That is the clear and present danger faced not just by organizations like ours, but by the individual citizens in countries around the world we each serve, defend and support. The Age of Impunity shows us a future in which might makes right and accountability is discarded. But impunity is not our destiny. By remaining true to our animating values, bearing witness to the abuses we see, putting pressure on violators, using our roles in international forums, and standing unity in a coalition of countervailing power, we can be a force for a new age of accountability.