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Why world leaders are failing us

As two generals have battled for power, thousands have been killed, millions displaced, and ethnic-based violence has once again emerged as famine looms.

Why world leaders are failing us

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Martin Griffiths

I have spent much of my career in or on the edges of war zones, but nothing quite prepared me for the breadth and depth of human suffering I have witnessed in my three years as the United Nations’ humanitarian chief. The early months of my tenure were consumed with the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and the effort to get more than a trickle of food and other aid to some five million people who had been cut off from the outside world by brutal fighting.

Then, in February 2022, came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine: the tanks rolling toward Kyiv; reports of summary executions and sexual violence in towns and villages; the brutal fighting in the east and south of the country that has forced millions of people from their homes; and the relentless attacks on apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and energy infrastructure that continue to this day. Tremors were felt around the world as food prices rose and geopolitical tensions deepened.

Just over a year later, the atrocious conflict in Sudan broke out. As two generals have battled for power, thousands have been killed, millions displaced, and ethnic-based violence has once again emerged as famine looms.

And then came Hamas’s horrendous Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the ensuing bombardment of Gaza, which has turned the blockade-impoverished enclave into hell on earth. The Ministry of Health in Gaza says more than 37,000 people in Gaza have been killed, and almost the entire population has been forced from their homes, many of them multiple times. Getting humanitarian aid to a population on the verge of famine has been made almost impossible, while humanitarian and United Nations workers have been killed in unconscionable numbers.

Millions of others across the world are suffering no less in long-running and unresolved conflicts that no longer make the headlines — in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Sahel, to name a few.

This is precisely the situation that the modern global order, created in the aftermath of World War II and embodied with heartfelt ambition in the United Nations Charter, was meant to prevent. The suffering of millions of people is clear evidence that we are failing.

At its heart, I do not believe this failure lies with the United Nations. After all, the body is only as good as the commitment, effort and resources that its members put in. For me, this is a failure of world leaders: They are failing humanity by breaking the compact between ordinary people and those in whom power is vested.

This is most evident in the leaders who, with such callous disregard for the consequences on their own people and others, remorselessly reach for the gun instead of pursuing diplomatic solutions. It is particularly egregious when it is permanent members of the Security Council, the United Nations body charged with maintaining international peace and security, who betray their solemn duties in this way. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, an act in violation of the United Nations Charter, is a clear example.

The failure of leadership is also evident in some nations’ almost unconditional wartime support provided to their allies, despite abundant evidence that it’s enabling widespread suffering and potential breaches of international humanitarian law. You can particularly see this in Gaza, where civilian lives and infrastructure are experiencing excessive harm. You can also see it in the obstruction and politicization of humanitarian assistance, while hunger and disease spread and humanitarian workers, health care workers, and journalists have all endured unacceptable losses. Just look at the weapons that have continued to flow to Israel from the United States and many other countries, despite the obviously appalling impact of the war on civilians.

It is evident in leaders’ failure to hold to account, and even in efforts to undermine accountability, those who breach the U.N. Charter and international law, emboldening those for whom our rules and norms are mere obstacles to their greed for power and resources.

And in my world, these failures are particularly evident in the fact that every year, international funding for humanitarian relief reaches nowhere near the amount required, while individual nations’ military spending increases. In 2023, the world’s collective military expenditure rose to $2.4 trillion, while the United Nations and other aid organizations scraped together just $24 billion for humanitarian assistance, a mere 43 percent of the amount required to meet the most urgent needs of hundreds of millions of people.

Nevertheless, I still have hope.

Despite the many inadequacies of world leadership, I have also seen ample evidence in the last three years, and throughout my career, that humanity, compassion and people’s determination and desire to help one another still burn strong. I have seen this across many world crises, in the host communities who share the little they have with people fleeing conflict and hardship, often for months and years on end; in the spontaneous mobilization of local and national groups who support their communities in times of crisis, such as Sudan’s youth-led Emergency Response Rooms that rallied to provide medical, engineering and other emergency support; and in the courageous efforts of humanitarian workers across the globe.

Throughout my seven tours of duty with the United Nations, I have seen the unique capability and can-do spirit of this body and its personnel to take on and manage unbelievably complex and demanding situations, and to secure solutions to seemingly intractable problems, when empowered to do so. It was this spirit that in 2022 drove my efforts to secure the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that allowed for vast amounts of grain to finally be exported from Ukraine after months of being blocked. This demonstrated that even bitter enemies locked in conflict could agree to mitigate the war’s impact on the food security of millions around the world.

It drove me in tough negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad to allow aid into northwest Syria following the devastating February 2023 earthquakes, and to push for the warring generals in Sudan to agree to a Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan, eventually paving the way for some aid to start flowing back into the country. All this shows the power of what we now call humanitarian mediation.

If we are to have any hope for a better, more peaceful, more equitable future, we need world leaders who unite us, rather than continue to seek ways to divide us. We need leaders who are able and willing to harness our collective humanity, reinvigorate our trust in our common laws, norms and institutions and who have the vision and drive to deliver on the immense hope and ambition of the U.N. Charter.

As I prepare to step down after three years as the head of the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts, this is my appeal to leaders on behalf of the humanitarian community and all the people whom we serve: Set aside narrow interests, division and conflict. Put humanity, cooperation and people’s hopes for a better, more equal world, back at the center of international relations.

NYT Editorial Board
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