I am very grateful indeed to the CFR for inviting me to join the distinguished list of speakers who have contributed to the Morse Lecture series. My talk today goes right to the heart of the rationale for the Morse Lectures – the interaction of foreign policy with human rights and human dignity.

Anyone who has followed recent media coverage – for example CBS’ 60 minutes featuring IRC’s work in Afghanistan, BBC reporting from Yemen, the New York Times or the Guardian on Ethiopia – will know that these questions are highly current. Increasing numbers of the world’s poorest people face truly unimaginable suffering. Six countries face famine conditions, and Afghanistan is at risk of becoming the 7th, with 9 million people on the brink. Hence my title: this is not normal.

Today the International Rescue Committee publishes its 2022 Emergency Watchlist. Based on 66 quantitative and qualitative indicators (including CFR’s Global Conflict Tracker), it lists the 20 countries that we believe are most likely to be consumed by humanitarian crisis next year. Starting with Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen at the top of the list, it is a misery index of record proportions.

That might be reason enough to come to CFR. There are enormous numbers of people in humanitarian need - breaking even last year’s records when Covid led to a 40 per cent rise in measured need. There are record numbers of people without food to eat - 41 million people are on the brink of famine around the world. Record numbers of people on the run from violence and persecution - amounting to more than one per cent of the world’s population. Record numbers of civilians and aid workers exposed to extreme threats to life as well as livelihood. These facts are shaming as well as shocking, given that the resources of the world to feed and support its people have never been greater.

However, I am not here to run through the Emergency Watchlist with a world tour of humanitarian need. Instead I want to get into the guts of an obvious reality all too often ignored: every humanitarian crisis is in fact a political crisis. I will make an argument in three parts:

First, there is something profound going on when you look at the toll of humanitarian need today. I will call this “System Failure”, understood in four dimensions: a failure of states, diplomacy, laws and humanitarian operations.

Second, the drivers of this System Failure engage high questions of international relations not just technical questions of humanitarian tactics. Civil conflicts are out of control, fueled by external sponsorship; the guardrails on the abuse of power have been weakened by changes in geopolitics, with direct consequences for humanitarian need; and universal rights are in retreat, under pressure from claims of state sovereignty.

Third, I will suggest some ideas of the kind of change we need to be debating if this tide is to be reversed. And as a spoiler alert: the remedies need to go well beyond the confines of the humanitarian sector.

I am going to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time to maximize the discussion period, so a fuller text of this speech will be available on the IRC and CFR websites, and I hope you will be able to study the full text of the Watchlist, where the data and country analysis behind what I am going to say is set out in more detail.

System Failure

The 20 countries in the IRC Emergency Watchlist have a combined population of 800 million. So 10 per cent of the global population. In these Watchlist countries, the total number in humanitarian need is 244 million people – nearly one in three residents. For women and girls, the proportion is higher. This is the highest ever number in our ten years of producing this report. That number in need represents:

89 per cent of total, global humanitarian need;

76 per cent of the number internally displaced;

80 per cent of refugees and asylum-seekers;

96 per cent of the attacks on aid workers so far in 2021;

89 per cent of the total number of civilian conflict deaths in 2020.

What’s more, these are not new crises. 18 of the 20 countries have previously appeared on Watchlist within the last 5 years. 11 have appeared in every single one of those years. The IRC has been running lifesaving humanitarian programming in the majority of these countries for over a decade.

In these places the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are not just a distant dream; they are receding further into the distance. And in many of these countries, the population is rising fast, so the pressures are growing not receding.

These are the data points that lead me to say that we need to recognize that there is something more serious here than a run of bad luck. The system for preventing and addressing humanitarian crisis, built on the twin pillars of, first, state sovereignty and responsibility, and second, international law and rights, is failing; it is failing for reasons that are structural not peripheral; and that means things are going to get worse not better unless action is taken.

This is what leads us to say that the experience in Watchlist countries represents System Failure. This System Failure is occurring at four levels.

First, there is state failure. More states are failing to fulfill their basic responsibilities towards their citizens. States are not just poor and unable to support their people. Increasing numbers of governments of these states are making things worse through sins of commission not just omission. Many of these states are bombing their own people, blocking the flow of food and medicines, or fostering hatred of minorities.

One facet of state failure is growing swathes of population under the governance of non-state actors: remember large parts of Afghanistan have been run by the Taliban long before the American withdrawal last August. A conservative estimate of the total number of people living under the control of non-state actors would be 60-80 million worldwide.[1]

There is, secondly, diplomatic failure.

The tools of diplomacy – soft power in the form of negotiations and hard power in the form of deterrence – are proving remarkably successful at preventing war between states. But wars within states are at record levels.

There are 55 so called “civil” wars at the moment,[2] although of course they are anything but civilized. Today they are ten-times more frequent than the in the previous two centuries. They last on average four times longer than inter-state wars[3] because peacemaking is in calamitous retreat. Just 21 peace agreements were signed or declared globally in 2020, the lowest since the end of the Cold War. As of mid-2021, there had been just seven.[4]

Then there is legal failure.

At the inauguration of the UN in 1945, in a speech at the Royal Albert Hall, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee called the UN Charter “our first line of defense”.[5] He meant our first line of defense against the abuse of power that had been defeated in the war.

The Charter represented that line of defense because for the first time in human history there was international commitment to the rights of people as well as rights of states. That is what made the rules-based order a “liberal” international order. The Geneva Conventions, with their rules on the treatment of civilians, on humanitarian access and other matters, codified the rights of people caught up in conflict.

Today, however, international law, with rights for citizens and responsibilities for states, is on the ropes, with growing war crimes and attacks on humanitarians without accountability. I call this the Age of Impunity. Power exercised without accountability leading to crimes without punishment. 70 per cent of the victims of war today are civilians.[6] Record numbers of aid workers are being attacked.[7] And over the last five years, hospitals and health facilities have been targeted as never before.[8]

Finally, there is breakdown of the international aid regime.

The idea of this system is supposed to be simple: rich countries give money or services to people or governments in poor countries to salve the wounds of war and poverty. But the system of aid, which exists to fill the gaps created by state, legal and diplomatic failure, depends on access as well as funding, independence as well as legitimacy, and those essential elements are being increasingly denied.

It is true that aid budgets have doubled in the decade since the global financial crisis, but the problem is that needs have trebled, so UN appeals are less than half-funded[9] and the head of the WFP is left to plead for dollars on Twitter to tackle starvation in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

But there are also massive problems beyond the quantum of aid. Aid is being blocked, with large sections of population cut off from aid as a matter of government policy. Aid is being politicized, with aid directed on the basis of political interest not need. Aid is being instrumentalized, to serve the needs of those giving not those receiving. UN officials are being intimidated, not being allowed to uphold the UN Charter.

Today, it is not just states that are failing; there is System Failure.


It is important to ask why these four aspects of System Failure are coming together to create such extreme levels of human suffering. I think there are three parts to explanation, and they are linked and reinforcing, as if in a Venn diagram.

First, conflicts are increasingly out of control, in their number, their duration, their virulence. This is partly driven by structural factors, for example the increasingly urban nature of warfare.

But there are also contingent factors.

Interfering in other people’s wars now represents the continuation of politics by other means. There has been unprecedented growth in the number of internationalized civil conflicts – where a foreign power provides guns, money, or fighters to one party of a civil war.

If you take the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, the countries involved number 12, 7 and 5. Nearly all the “severe” conflicts happening in the world – where there have been more than 1000 battlefield deaths – are internationalized civil conflicts.[10]

Civil conflicts have always created two classes of citizen – friends and enemies. That is one reason they are so brutal. But internationalization of civil conflict makes political settlement more complicated, incentives for compromise lower, accountability weaker, and accelerants of impunity stronger.

Second, changes in geopolitics have increased fragmentation of the international system, and drained efficacy from global institutions. Instead of the multipolar world ushering in a new era of collaboration to prevent and resolve humanitarian crises, global politics has fractured in fundamental ways.

The superpowers circle each other, searching for weakness and advantage, and build global partnerships to advance their position and rivalry. Meanwhile, mid-level powers – The Economist recently highlighted Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Rwanda – are increasingly willing and able to take matters into their own hands as active players in civil conflict around the world.

There is also increasing willingness on the parts of states to disrupt the international system – a recent example being the ending of the mil accountability being exercised by the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts monitoring the conduct of the war in Yemen. Gridlock in the UN Security Council, as seen in the growing use and threat of the veto has become the defining feature of the body.

Finally non-state actors have growing influence. This is not confined to traditional armed opposition groups or the more recent vintage global jihadist groups. It includes community self-defense militias (in the Sahel) and private military contractors (for example in CAR or Mozambique). This presents a fundamental challenge for an international system designed to regulate relations between states.

The third driver of System Failure is a shift away from universal rights in favor of assertions of national sovereignty, including from those regimes willing to ignore or suppress those rights. Where human rights are abused, sovereignty is a useful shield for any government against scrutiny. This happens in almost every conflict to forestall accountability, access, transparency. Sovereignty is the rallying cry of populists in the democratic countries and autocrats in undemocratic ones. The result is a pincer movement against rights that are meant to be universal.

What to do

Our job, at IRC, is to treat those left stranded by System Failure. As a humanitarian agency, our tests are about outcomes: how many people do we help survive, recover and gain control of their lives.

The good news is that we are helping more people in more profound ways than ever before. But the bad news is that the gap between total needs and total provision of humanitarian aid is growing not narrowing.

We are helping more people survive through our health programs, recover through our protection programs, and gain control of their lives through our education and employment programs. But more people are dying, deteriorating, and losing control of their lives.

So when it comes to the question of how to combat System Failure, our response has to fall into two categories. There are changes within our sector, where we have some agency, and then changes beyond our sector, essentially changes in the geopolitical sphere, where we are witnesses not protagonists. My purpose here is to set out some ideas that should be on the agenda in each category.

In the first category are measures that can be initiated now, for 2022. If the test is saving lives next year then the following are imperative:

We need 50 per cent of overseas aid to be directed to conflict and fragile states, which includes all the Watchlist countries. The truth is that stable states will enjoy the greatest reductions in poverty as a result of growing economies not aid policy. But the opposite is true for conflict states. The Cameron government enacted this policy in 2015 in the UK and it was enlightened to do so. If 50 per cent of even bilateral ODA went to fragile states it would mean an extra $25 pa billion for these countries.[11]

We obviously need to tackle the Covid vaccine divide now. That means redistribution of excess vaccines from rich to poor countries; production of vaccines in poorer countries, but also effective distribution to turn vaccines into vaccinations in the poorest places. A program of “humanitarian doses” to reach 40% vaccination rates in Watchlist countries would require 300 million doses of vaccine. And it requires funding for frontline responders to bridge the gap. Yet right now the number of booster shots in high-income countries is more than triple the number of people fully vaccinated in Watchlist countries. This is dangerous as well as immoral. And as the emergence of new variants like Omicron show, it is also shortsighted.

We need to bring crisis settings into the fight against climate change by increasing the proportion of financing directed to them and dedicating half of the proposed $100 billion Green Climate Fund to adaptation needs. This is a tiny commitment compared to what is necessary to decarbonize global energy supply (and what was used to prop up western economies during Covid). A truly global response should both support those already suffering from the effects of climate change today and commit to mitigate the future effects for all.

Refugees are amongst the vulnerable so we need a “New Deal for the Forcibly Displaced” by resettling 400,000 refugees in 2022 and supporting debt relief for states on the frontlines of the world’s refugee crisis. The US has raised its resettlement ceiling to 125,000 refugees and welcomed an additional 70,000 Afghans, a de facto commitment of nearly 200,000. The rest of the world should meet this ambition by pledging to collectively resettle an additional 200,000 people in 2022.

However, around 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Uganda and Bangladesh.[12] Yet in the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of major refugee-hosting states were among 64 developing countries that spent more on debt payments than on health services.[13] International financial institutions and major donors should respond to the generosity shown by refugee hosts by committing to more ambitious aid and beyond-aid solutions, including greater debt relief measures to states willing to host refugees and adopt inclusive refugee policies.

These ideas are the bread and butter of the humanitarian sector. They should have been done long ago. But if you believe the argument I have made today, then you will immediately recognize that System Failure cannot be solved by the humanitarian sector. It needs much broader changes. Here we can only bear witness, and suggest ideas that could make a difference.

Those of us working in the world’s war zones know conflict is the biggest driver of extreme poverty, and see very day the need to reinvigorate peace making and peace building. For that we need to break global gridlock on the UN Security Council when it comes to mass atrocities, because it is only the UNSC that can mandate peace envoys, enable UN sanctions, implement arms embargoes, send off peace missions. I never used the veto in the UN Security Council as UK Foreign Secretary. In fact the British veto has not been used since 1989.[14] And France has proposed that the veto be abandoned in cases of mass atrocity. I strongly support this move. The most common rebuttal is a weak one: the argument that the definition of a mass atrocity will be politicized. But the answer to that is not to kill the idea. It is to depoliticize the definition of a mass atrocity. The best way to do that would be to have an independent standing panel, working on the basis of the UN Charter, reporting direct to the UNSG and publicly triggering a case where the P5 countries should abandon use of the veto.

We need to take the realpolitik out of humanitarian access, the denial of aid, and the collective punishment of communities. This is the weapon of choice in war today, from Syria to Ethiopia to Yemen to Afghanistan. The world needs new muscle in the drive to prevent the strangulation and weaponization of aid. Realpolitik has created a conspiracy of silence. We need an independent Organization for the Protection of Humanitarian Access, modeled on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to call out the denial of aid, which after all is contrary to IHL.

We need military partnerships to build in commitments to respect international humanitarian law. There is one model for this in the “Leahy Laws” in the US that restrict US government funding for foreign security force units implicated in gross violations of human rights. Now is the time for more far-reaching efforts to institutionalize respect for humanitarian law in military partnerships and incentivize much greater respect for civilians and civilian infrastructure like health facilities and schools in the conduct of conflict.

We need more expansive use of Universal Jurisdiction laws to prosecute those committing the most egregious abuses and violations of IHL. This has been done to some effect in Germany over the Syria conflict, drawing government and NGOs together in partnership. This work could be part of the commitment made during President Biden’s Summit for Democracies process. Civil conflict situations represent the tip of the iceberg in the slide to impunity.  Action in this area requires Western governments to get their houses in order; to cooperate with civil society to fashion an agenda for transparency about and accountability for war crimes; and to use laws at their disposal to show that the drive for justice and accountability can be determined and far-reaching.

To repeat, these ideas are indicative of what we see as necessary to arrest the global trend towards System Failure. They are no cure-all, even if they were all implemented, but each would strike a blow against the rise in impunity. The fact that they are seen as politically unrealistic, when they are only a start, gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.


Every year the Watchlist is a sobering document. This year it is especially so. But my argument today has been that the numbers need to promote reassessment not just shock; rethinking not just shaking of the head.

What is happening today is not normal. It is not run of the mill. It is not the way things were even ten years ago, never mind at the time of the passage of Responsibility to Protect in 2005. The nature of the crises the international system is dealing with are different, the distribution of power within the international system is different, and the values animating the international system are different, and thus we need a different response.

My IRC colleagues are on the front lines. They are working with extraordinary ingenuity and skill as well as diligence and courage. But the humanitarian emergencies will only get worse if their causes are ignored and neglected. That is the true message of this year’s Emergency Watchlist, and one that I need your help in taking forward.


[1] Pejic, Jelina, Irénée Herbert, and TIlman Rodenhäuser. “ ICRC Engagement with Non-State Armed Groups: Why and How.” Humanitarian Law & Policy. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021. https://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2021/03/04/icrc-engagement-non-st….

[2] Armed Conflict by Type, 1946-2020. Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Uppsala Universitet, 2021. https://ucdp.uu.se/downloads/charts/graphs/pdf_21/armedconf_by_type.pdf.

[3] Armitage, David. Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Yale University Press, 2017.

[4] “PA-X Peace Agreement Database.” University of Edinburgh, 2021.

[5] Albert Hall - UN Formation 1945. Royal Albert Music Hall, 1945. https://www.britishpathe.com/video/albert-hall-un-formation/query/rober….

[6] Khorram-Manesh, Amir, Frederick M. Burkle, Krzysztof Goniewicz, and Yohan Robinson. “Estimating the Number of Civilian Casualties in Modern Armed Conflicts–A Systematic Review.” Frontiers in Public Health 9 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2021.765261.

[7] “Total NGO Incident Data.” INSO Key Data Dashboard. INSO, 2021. https://www.ngosafety.org/keydata-dashboard/.

[8] “ Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care (SSA) .” WHO, 2021. https://extranet.who.int/ssa/Index.aspx.

[9] “Humanitarian Aid Contributions.” Financial Tracking Service. UNOCHA, 2021. https://fts.unocha.org/appeals/overview/2021.

[10] Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946–2020. Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2021.

[11] “Development finance data.” OECD, 2021. https://www.oecd.org/dac/financing-sustainable-development/development-…

[12] “UNHCR Global Trends 2020.” UNHCR, 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends/.

[13] “Sixty-Four Countries Spend More on Debt Payments than Health.” Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2020. https://jubileedebt.org.uk/press-release/sixty-four-countries-spend-mor….

[14]“Security Council - Veto List.” Dag Hammarskjöld Library. United Nations, 2021. https://research.un.org/en/docs/sc/quick.