Salil Shetty Address to Munich Security Conference 2016

The Humanitarian Situation in Africa and the Middle East

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty addresses world leaders at the Munich Security Conference on 14 February, 2016.

FULL TEXT:

Thank you. Speaking after Kofi, under whom I had the privilege of working in my last job at the UN, is generally a bad idea, like being asked to perform or sing after Pavarotti or Beyoncé or Morgan Freeman. But I have little choice.

I will be speaking about Africa but also connecting it with the discussion we have had on the Middle East. The humanitarian situation in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa in particular, but also parts of sub-Saharan Africa, ranges between grim and catastrophic. I cannot make it sound any better and I suspect the people in this room know this reality already. 

Most full-blown humanitarian crises have their origins in governments suppressing freedoms of their people, and governments (or even societies sometimes) disrespecting the identity, dignity and diversity of some sections of the population.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

In my view, most full-blown humanitarian crises have their origins in governments suppressing freedoms of their people, and governments (or even societies sometimes) disrespecting the identity, dignity and diversity of some sections of the population. But young people and women and marginalised groups in general are not ready to take this lying down anymore. They are standing up for their rights. So discrimination, inequality and unaccountable governance are the fertile grounds on which conflict erupts and thrives.

And what begins as a pattern of human rights violations turns into social and political tensions and then full blown conflicts and humanitarian crises.

So I want to use my time to make three points:

First, I want to take a longer view and say that virtually all of these humanitarian crises are predictable and many of them preventable. If the early warning system – the flashing red lights of human rights violations – are heeded and those in power at the national level take corrective action on their own or with regional or international support or persuasion, many of these crises could be prevented. Take the case of Syria. Five years ago, when President Assad’s regime started attacking peaceful protestors to crush dissent, Amnesty International and many others had sounded the alarm bell that this could spiral out of control. Here we are, five years later in a full-blown violent conflict with all sides showing scant respect to international human rights law and humanitarian law. With innocent children, women and families bearing the human cost of this war.

And as we meet here today, we have other similar crises brewing. Burundi stands at the brink of civil war – a quarter of a million refugees already. Again, the signs were clear. Protests against President Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term were brutally attacked. Amnesty International has documented a pattern of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Perceived opposition strongholds are singled out, most human rights organisations have been closed or their bank accounts frozen, their leaders under attack. Independent radio stations are off the air and journalists face being prosecuted on trumped-up charges. We at Amnesty International have even used satelite imagery recently to identify what we believe are mass graves that urgently need independent investigation. 

If the early warning system – the flashing red lights of human rights violations – are heeded and those in power at the national level take corrective action on their own or with regional or international support or persuasion, many of these crises could be prevented.
Salil Shetty

Or look at Eritrea, which accounts for a huge flow of refugees on a treacherous journey into Europe. Young people leaving in part because of forced and long-term conscription into the Eritrean army. And then Egypt, which unfortunately hardly got much air-time in this conference so far, locked up more than 10,000 people last year, anybody who is perceived as a form of opposition to the regime. So, do we wait for Burundi, Eritrea and Egypt to explode into full blown humanitarian crises before we take action? Concerted, collective action now can prevent a much more expensive tragedy later.

So my second point: how do we respond to situations which are already in full blown conflict and crisis mode? Where it is clear that groups opposed to the government, even if they started peacefully, are now resorting to violence, or where neglected crises have been hijacked by violent groups who perpetrate abuses, even committing war crimes. Again, Amnesty International has repeatedly exposed the brutality of Islamic State & Boko Haram, for example. Yes, in the face of violent attacks by such groups against civilians, it is the responsibility of all governments to protect their people and ensure their security. But time and again, governments are caught taking short cuts on human rights and themselves committing war crimes – most recently the shocking number of civilian casualties from Russian air strikes on Aleppo. But the Iraqi army and allied Shi’a militias have a lot to account for in their violations against Sunni Arabs during the fight against ISIS. Or indeed the international humanitarian law violations by members of the Saudi led coaliti in Yemen. And what about the Nigerian army accused of serious human rights abuses in the North East of Nigeria? We cant forget that a lot of these violations are happening using arms provided by western powers, many of whom have signed up to the UN Arms Trade Treaty that precludes arms being sent to human rights violators. Some of them are even trained by western armies. The justification used by all parties now is countering terrorism. Vague and overly broad definitions of who is a terrorist gives perpetrators of human rights abuses a free pass. We need to recognise that taking short cuts on human rights only fuels a vicious cycle of violence and will never lead to durable peace or stability. The choice is not between human rights or security. The only real choice is human rights for security.

And now to my third and last point, a word on the crisis we are all facing in different ways. Europe is struggling with the million refugees who are here now. I spent some time in the Bekaa valley on the Lebanese border talking to Syrian children, women and men in their informal refugee camps and not one of them said they wanted to come to Europe. They all want to go back home but they can’t. We should remember that the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees (over 90%) are in the neighbouring countries, just as most of Africa’s refugees are in Africa and Asian refugees are in Asia, hosted by some of the poorest countries in the world, with minimal support from the rich countries.

When we start treating refugees who are fleeing from war and persecution as criminals, regard their lives as cheap and deny them the international protection that they are entitled to, there is little difference between us and those who are causing them to flee in the first place. If we viewed the global refugee crisis from the standpoint of our common obligations to humanity and the perspective of not only our security but also their security, then our responses would also be vastly different. We would be focussed on the protection of civilians, our global responsibility to resettle the 1.2 million refugees who need priority help and on creating safe, legal and dignified routes for the refugees to enter. Of course, there are security realities and we should not dodge them but we should not exploit them and exaggerate them. And use it as an excuse to deny security and protection to the refugees. Allowing Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric to shape the discourse is bound to have long-term consequences.

As Amnesty International, I am representing over seven million members, activists in an independent, impartial movement – and I am often told by my members and our activists that yes, we have a refugee crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and in some cases even a security crisis. But above all, it seems we have a leadership crisis with a shocking lack of ethical leadership in many parts of the world.

It is much better that we proactively do something to fix this before it is too late. It is in our hands to change this, the question is, are we ready?

Thank you.

Note: There is a discrepancy between the script and the speech as delivered in stating the number of people arrested for their perceived opposition to the government in Egypt. The script is correct. We regret the error.

Watch Salil Shetty's address to the Munich Security Conference 2016.