Sunday is World Humanitarian Day—the anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003, and a moment to commemorate the humanitarian workers there and elsewhere who have given their lives in service of others. And this year in particular, it should be a moment to reflect on why those people gave their lives. Because the principle for which they died—the core humanitarian imperative that lifesaving aid should be provided to all in need on the basis of their universal humanity rather than their particular beliefs or identities—is increasingly under threat.
The most visible of these threats come from warring parties who feel less and less hesitant about targeting humanitarian actors and the people they help. This year’s World Humanitarian Day theme is #NotATarget, to highlight the outrage of targeting those who provide aid in conflict. Just in the past few months, Saudi Arabia has bombed humanitarian clinics and targeted schoolchildren in Yemen, while mounting an offensive that threatens to grind the Yemen aid operation to a halt in rebel-held territory. In Syria, the Syrian and Russian governments continue their longstanding practice of blocking aid to opposition areas and targeting medical facilities. In Myanmar, the government has actively cleansed Rohingya populations from their lands while blocking aid groups from assisting those who remain. The list goes on and on.
But the erosion of the core humanitarian imperative is not limited to warring parties. Less extreme, but also important, have been a number of steps taken by the US Government over the past year. These policies further undermine the already-weakened notion that humanitarian action should be guided by need alone, rather than used as a carrot or stick for pursuing political objectives.
These shifts are deeply concerning not because the US government’s behavior is equivalent to attacking a clinic (it clearly is not), but rather because the US has traditionally held itself to a much higher standard. Losing the US leadership voice—and example—in consistently providing and advocating needs-based aid and unfettered humanitarian access is hugely concerning.
The erosion of US humanitarian leadership is visible across multiple fronts. For a start, the Trump administration has yet to fill a single high-profile humanitarian appointment in the government. USAID Administrator Mark Green has done an admirable job trying to pick up the slack, but cannot be in multiple jobs at once. At USAID, my former position as head of disaster response remains vacant, as does the head of the food aid office. The bureau chief that oversees USAID humanitarian programs remains vacant as well, although a nominee has finally been named.
At the State Department the picture is even more grim; the nominee to run State’s refugee bureau has a long history of inflammatory anti-migrant sentiments and so (rightfully) faces major obstacles to confirmation. As the President’s term approaches its midway point, these vacancies weaken the government’s ability to project consistent leadership on humanitarian issues.
Compounding this is the White House’s impulse to use humanitarian aid as a political cudgel rather than a principled reflection of American concern. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the decision to defund UNRWA, the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees. UNRWA provides basic lifesaving and life-sustaining services to Palestinians in the occupied territories and neighboring host countries. Its programs are nothing fancy, but provide enough support to maintain a minimal degree of livability in the territories while reducing the burden placed on host countries.
The Trump administration has halted US support for these programs, perhaps indefinitely, as retaliation for the Palestinian Authority’s opposition to attempts to impose unpalatable negotiating terms. The practical result is that schools are closing, clinics are struggling to keep the lights on, raw sewage is going untreated, and people are going hungry. This does little to pressure the PA, which does not receive UNRWA funds, but it does directly harm average Palestinians. And it is likely to be deeply counterproductive even in its purported political aims; rather than making Palestinians more amenable to US political demands, it will simply leave them more dependent on extremist groups like Hamas for basic social services.
More egregious yet is the administration’s unrelenting assault on refugees. As Vanity Fair recently reported, senior White House personnel have worked behind the scenes to dramatically weaken the refugee bureau at the State Department, which has traditionally served as the government’s institutional expert and internal advocate on refugee protection and asylum matters. The White House has orchestrated massive reductions in the number of refugees brought to the US for resettlement. Resettlement helps to protect the most vulnerable refugees—typically those who face extreme challenges in their host countries and have little prospect for successfully returning home.
This attack on refugees and asylum is compounded by the administration’s domestic policies, which have targeted asylum seekers for deeply inhumane treatment. Cruel policies like family separations are rightly condemned as reprehensible in their own right. But the example they set will also reverberate in other places. Countries hosting long-term refugee populations and facing influxes of new asylum seekers will feel emboldened to block them from entry, deny them due process, and use cruel tactics to drive them away. After all, if the US will use inhumane tactics to deter asylum seekers, why can’t they?
It is a grim picture. Humanitarian aid is, at its best, a reflection of the notion that whatever our differences and disagreements, people can still recognize and affirm each other’s fundamental humanity. Aid workers, like those we commemorate Sunday, put their lives on the line not to exert political leverage but to help their fellow people. As the government commemorates World Humanitarian Day and those humanitarians we have lost, they can best honor that sacrifice by also honoring the reasons for it. When we depart from those values, we cheapen that sacrifice, and cheapen ourselves.