24 JANUARY 2020

I’ve been CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian charity, for six years. I oversee a team of over 30,000 staff and volunteers across nearly 40 countries. One fear is greater than all others: the news that one of our staff has been killed. I’m getting more of those messages every year. That’s what I want to talk about today. Why it is happening, and what we can do about it.

The work my organization does inside Syria is emblematic of our mission to help people whose lives have been shattered by crisis and conflict. We work in Raqqa, Idlib, and Deir-az-Zour, places that are still consumed by conflict. My colleagues there provide emergency cash assistance, medical supplies, and child protection services to more than a million Syrians each year.

Two of those Syrian aid workers are Mohamed Mishnen and Fadi Alomar. Here are their pictures. Mohamed was a 29 year-old paramedic and Fadi, a 34 year-old ambulance driver. Both were supported by my organization and our partner the Syrian American Medical Society. Their job was to treat civilians wounded in the fighting in the southern part of Idlib province in northwest Syria.

On August 14th last year, they were driving in their ambulance on the way to a patient in need of medical care. 30,000 feet in the sky above them was a Russian fighter jet. With speed, precision, and deadly effect the Russian jet targeted the well-marked ambulance and fired on it, killing both Mohamed and Fadi inside.

Welcome to the Age of Impunity.

And when all of them get away with it. So you can understand why my greatest worry is the safety of my staff.

There are three points I want you to take away from this presentation today:

First, that the Age of Impunity is here and it is dangerous.

Second, that the retreat from the rule of law, which is what the Age of Impunity is, should not just be a cause of NGOs, but also be the business of business.

Third, that with governments in retreat from big global problems, or creating and compounding them, it is for NGOs and businesses to step up and step forward to find solutions.

Today 69 of the 100 richest entities in the world are businesses, not governments. You have the power. The question is how you use it.

You know the phrase power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is the danger today. That outrages like the bombing of an ambulance will become precedent and precedent will become the norm.

After the Second World War, pioneering leaders recognized that where there is no floor under the protection of the most vulnerable, there is no limit to the abuses of the most powerful. That led to unprecedented rights for individuals.

And while the post-war order never fully lived up to its lofty ambitions, it ushered in an era of expanded rights and freedoms that enabled incredible advances in economic prosperity and powered the historic wave of democratization from which every one of us in this room has so greatly benefited.

But the checks written out in 1945 to the most vulnerable people in the world – checks marked “international humanitarian law,” checks marked “civilian protection” – are bouncing. The most basic rights are under threat.

This is the Age of Impunity. Anything goes. And the law is for suckers.

A time where war crimes go unpunished and the laws of war become optional. A time when militaries, militias, and mercenaries in conflicts around the world believe they can get away with anything, and because they can get away with anything, they do everything. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers.

You name it, we are seeing it, seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it, and less accountability for it.

So how has this happened? I would say we need to look at the following factors:

These are deep trends. They go to the heart of the basic compact on which the global system is built and they weaken at every stage the institutions, laws and norms on which accountability rests and the rights we take for granted depend. And that leads to my next point: don’t believe that the rule of law will be strong in economics if it is weak in politics.

My appeal for the help of the business community today is not just on moral grounds. It is also on the grounds of self interest. For two reasons.

First, when the rule of law is meaningless in the most fundamental aspects of politics, it is a short jump to it being overridden in economics. When power is not accountable in matters of life and death, it is all too easy for it to become optional in more mundane matters of dollars and cents. Countries which sneer at human rights are usually a threat to property rights.

Second, the global problems being addressed here in Davos are complex and long term. Climate change, protection from pandemics, are the great questions of our age. But if we cannot protect the most basic foundation stone of the international system, namely the rights to life of civilians and aid workers, their right not to be killed in conflict that is going on around them, then we have no chance of building a multilateral system worthy of its name.

And with governments in retreat, we need businesses and NGOs to chart a way forward. We need to use our voice. We need to use our resources. We need to use our experience to come up with new ideas.

Obviously I want those of you in this room to support organizations like the International Rescue Committee. We are proud of the many great partnerships we have with the private sector, like the work the IRC does with Google, Microsoft, and Cisco to develop an information platform called Signpost that has connected more than a million refugees with the services they need.

But that is insufficient for the task at hand. Here’s where else we need your help:

I want to end where I began. With two aid workers killed going about their business.

The liberal international order is becoming less liberal, less international and less orderly. And now there is an alternative future, what Yuval Harari calls a “network of fortresses.” Even less liberal, even less international and even less orderly.

Mohamed, Fadi, and the Syrian civilians they were serving were powerless in the face of the Russian and Syrian militaries, but we aren’t. So it’s on us to establish accountability for the powerful and turn the tide this Age of Impunity. And we need your help to achieve it.

The ambulance Mohamed and Fadi rode has been destroyed, but we still have more than a dozen more ambulances, twenty health facilities, and 300 staff continuing their mission every single day despite the dangers. If you believe Mohamed and Fadi shouldn’t die in vain and you want to create accountability for the most powerful, please help us.