International Humanitarian Conference 2011 Organised By Mercy Malaysia

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

Salam sejahtera

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Oftentimes, we hear of wonderful tales of heroism in the midst of natural disasters, when ordinary men and women forget their own difficulties, risk all and rise to meet overwhelming challenges. Imagine though what it is like to have to do this again and again. It takes a special kind of person to make the kinds of personal and professional sacrifices, to go through extreme hardships, frequently getting in harm’s way, in order to be of service to his or her fellow human beings. It takes more than a person with compassion, although that is certainly a prerequisite. It takes true passion and conviction.

  1. Many, if not most, Malaysians are moved by graphic images of human suffering brought about by conflicts and disasters. Quite a few are motivated to donate generously as a result. Fewer still are prepared to go out of their comfort zone and take action. Yet that is what the 500 members and the more than 5,000 volunteers of MERCY Malaysia do year in and year out, and at short notice. That is why my profound respect and admiration go out to these committed, capable and organised Malaysians. They are exemplary citizens in EVERY sense of the word. They make this country and the world a distinctly better place.
  2. They have chosen to see beyond their selves and circumstances to embrace those of other customs and cultures. They treat all humanity – differentiated as they are – with respect. In an age when the tendency is towards indifference and impersonality, MERCY Malaysia’s creed that “we will go the extra mile to help those in need” is refreshing and uplifting to the spirit. That is why I am very pleased to be here with you this morning at this important conference.
  3. In thinking about the state of humanitarian assistance today, I cannot help but reflect, as others have, on the great imbalances that exist. There are great imbalances between the numbers who are suffering and those who are trying to alleviate their suffering. There are great imbalances in the amount of resources going into causing human suffering compared to that committed to easing or preventing it. Efforts can usually cater to only a small fraction of those affected and then only for a relatively short time compared to the years or even decades that it can take to fully recover. In short, the humanitarian assistance offered, as critical as it is, usually cannot match the depth of humanitarian crises.
  4. The central message I want to convey this morning is a simple one: From governments to non-governmental organisations, and from corporations to individuals, everyone must give more focus and attention to human security. Given the great imbalances I have pointed out, humanitarian assistance cannot just be the enterprise of the few. It must be the efforts of the many, each doing what he or she can to play a positive and organised role in ameliorating and, equally importantly, preventing human suffering. Only then can we hope to raise effective responses to the many challenges facing us now and in the future.
  5. The concept of security, which has traditionally been thought of as a nation’s security, must now include human security in a much more comprehensive manner. At its most basic, human security has been defined as the “freedom from fear” and the “freedom from want”[1]. I take this to mean that it enables a person to be untroubled by an imminent threat of loss of life, liberty or livelihood. Simply put, human security enables people to feel confident about the present and the future.
  6. Historically, security was associated with strong armies that could bolster a country, enabling it to withstand attacks from enemies. Unfortunately, wars are still not a thing of the past, although they should be. The sources of mankind’s insecurity, however, have multiplied. If nothing else, the string of natural catastrophes, changing weather patterns and pandemics that have taken a huge toll on human life over the last decade should give us pause as to what our sense of security ought to be based on.
  7. Natural disasters serve as a constant reminder that some of the greatest threats to humankind are beyond our reckoning and control. In one night in 1976, for example, the Tangshan earthquake in China took more than 240,000 lives. Some estimates place it closer to 800,000. In one morning on 26 December 2005, somewhere between 230,000 and 300,000 lives were lost following the Indian Ocean tsunami. In the course of a day in 2010, the Haiti earthquake claimed more than 300,000 lives.
  8. The floods in Pakistan that submerged a fifth of the country in 2010 took 2,000 lives, and affected up to 20 million others, and continue to do so. There is no indication that natural disasters will decline in the future. With population growth, human settlements are moving into ever more hostile and dangerous environments. Even with strict international accords on reducing carbon emissions, the extent of their ability to stop climate change is uncertain. All of this should lead us to reflect on the impermanence of our security and the inadequacy of our efforts.
  9. Disaster response and management are receiving a lot more attention these days. The efforts, however, are still miniscule compared to the magnitude of the threats involved. Without clear delineation of these threats, governments, the people they represent, and the many private corporations who depend on a safe and secure environment, seem to lack the resolve to give more than token attention and resources to preparing for them.
  10. It may not be so much a question of lack of resources, as it is of misplaced priorities. Let me illustrate. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military expenditure is estimated to have topped 1.6 trillion US dollars in 2010[2]. Compare this figure to the 16.7 billion US dollars, or just 1 per cent of the previous figure, spent on humanitarian assistance the same year[3]. Even taking into account the fact that this 16.7 billion US dollar figure does not include the amounts spent by affected countries themselves, the world’s spending priorities seem clear.
  11. There are some important factors to note about the 16.7 billion dollar figure. First, the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom were the three largest donors in 2010, contributing a total of 7 billion US dollars. This is a generous sum to be sure but it is a mere basis point of their combined 33 trillion US dollars in gross national income. Countries such as Sweden, Norway and the United Arab Emirates contributed much more in relative terms. Second, just three countries accounted for almost all the increases in humanitarian assistance in 2010 – the US, Japan and Canada. Other members of the Development Assistance Committee have been reducing their contributions. Third, despite a record amount of contributions, an increasing amount of United Nations appeals have gone unmet. This reflects the fact that there are more calls for humanitarian assistance today and the cost of providing assistance is steadily increasing.
  12. Looking at the composition of traditional source countries, one cannot help but feel anxious for the short- to medium term. The US, the European Union and the United Kingdom, the three largest donors, are now undergoing severe fiscal challenges. Their humanitarian assistance may not disappear altogether but are likely to be significantly reduced in the near future.
  13. To avoid a significant humanitarian deficit, countries, public and private organisations and individuals will need to either start contributing or increase their contributions significantly. Humanitarian assistance can no longer afford to be identified either as a primarily Western or governmental endeavour. North, East and South must join the global community of nations, each party contributing according to its ability. Already, there are signs that this is beginning to happen. Saudi Arabia and Brazil were major contributors to the Haitian earthquake relief and India has made substantial donations to the Central Emergency Response Fund for Pakistan. Malaysia, through MERCY Malaysia, is also contributing significantly to alleviating global suffering.
  14. As with any mass effort, the myriad efforts need to be cohesive. Parties will need to form collaborative partnerships in order to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and not duplicating tasks and wasting effort and resources.
  15. Also, we should not get the idea that humanitarian assistance starts and ends with money, crucial though it is. Money buys resources but not necessarily effectiveness. Effectiveness depends on well thought-out and researched planning, organisation and execution. Money can buy the services of technically capable individuals, but it cannot ensure that they will work with integrity and accountability. A sad fact but one we cannot disregard is that corruption, even in the midst of great human suffering, is not unknown.
  16. Furthermore, money does not buy the boldness, courage and compassion of those wanting to make a difference. The foundations of humanitarian assistance depend critically on affected communities themselves. Who can forget, in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohuku region of Japan in March of this year, the patient, orderly and disciplined response of its residents? Instead of complaints, Japan’s communities and individuals took it upon themselves to contribute towards recovery efforts. It is difficult to envisage how finances alone could have created this resilient, voluntary and self-sacrificing culture.
  17. Japan was, without doubt, one of the best prepared of any country in the world for natural disasters. Yet its disaster preparation and response systems, policies and procedures came under heavy criticism from inside and outside the country. Similar criticism was directed at the US in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, when the elaborate system of locks and levies were breached at considerable cost to human lives and property, especially in and around the city of New Orleans. To me, the lesson from this is that we should never take our plans, no matter how well designed or thought out, for granted. Nature has a habit of upending them.
  18. A better understanding of the causes of disasters, such as climate change, terrestrial, and seismic activities – in short, what goes on above and below the earth’s surface – are essential precursors and components of the value chain in humanitarian assistance. Equally important though are the managerial, social and psychological aspects of disaster relief. As the theme of this Conference reminds us, our goal must constantly be “to do it better”. We must be prepared to share this knowledge widely and freely. The more people who know, the better off the entire world will be.
  19. I have so far touched on natural disasters. Roughly two-thirds of all humanitarian assistance, however, goes not to disaster relief but to conflict-affected and post-conflict countries. In fact, the top countries, led by Sudan, Palestine and the Occupied Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo receive the major portion of humanitarian assistance on a multi-year basis. This leaves little room to accommodate new conflict zones that arise or existing ones that worsen. It is no wonder then that the 2011 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report begins with the statement, “humanitarian aid is being stretched”.
  20. Stretched it certainly is. Until and unless the global community finds better ways to deal with the sources of man-made conflict and, in particular, to defend civilians from violence, humanitarian aid agencies will have their work truly cut out for them. Acts of omission and inaction rather than commission have resulted in some of the greatest genocides the world has ever known.
  21. This is why the evolution of the international norm of the Right to Protect (or R-to-P) is of such great importance. Agreed to by leaders at the United Nations World Summit in 2005, R-to-P places the primary responsibility for the protection of the general populace from crimes against humanity on member states. It also charges the international community to assist states in the fulfilment of this responsibility through diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means. Where states themselves are the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the collective use of force through the UN Security Council is specifically authorized.
  22. I am aware that there are a number of countries that are generally supportive of this Third Pillar, that is, the responsibility of the international community to take collective action. After all, which responsible country can, in good conscience, sanction another to commit mass atrocities against its own civilians. Nevertheless, many countries are uncomfortable at how the Third Pillar is implemented in detail. This is especially in light of recent interventions. Regardless, even as the world community strives to work out the whens and the hows of the authorized use of force, the application of peaceful measures to dissuade the offending countries from perpetrating humanitarian disasters is crucial.
  23. I support the eventual mainstreaming of R-to-P as a global norm. It will help to limit deaths and injuries among civilian non-combatants as well as limit the work of already overburdened humanitarian assistance organisations. This, in turn, will enable humanitarian relief agencies to do their work more effectively and with less fear for their safety. The safety and wellbeing of humanitarian assistance workers must never be compromised. Sadly though, too many who have committed their lives to helping the victims of humanitarian crises have ended up being victims themselves.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

  1. Governments need to pursue good, strong and stable governance at all times. There can be no substitute for a well-run country. When disasters do happen, they are able to provide a safe and non-bureaucratic environment to enable relief operations to be conducted efficiently and longer-term restoration efforts to take place. They must ensure that unfolding humanitarian incidents do not subsequently grow to become tragedies.
  2. In this regard, the Malaysian government would do well to give a deserved recognition to MERCY Malaysia as an exemplary national humanitarian body. While the government has its own role in mitigating and responding to crises, it should tie-in its own objectives with the knowledge, resources and expertise that MERCY Malaysia can provide. At the same time, MERCY Malaysia must be afforded the autonomy to carry out its work, unhindered by bureaucracy and red tape. The organisation has been doing a fine job and is deserving of the best that this nation can offer in terms of human, physical and financial resources.
  3. As for private corporations, they have many a time been accused of being complicit in humanitarian crises, driven, if conventional wisdom is correct, by their profit motives. If this was true in the past, it can no longer be so in the future. More and more companies are voluntarily subscribing to codes of conduct and contributing to alleviating human suffering, in effect making them a part of the solution rather than the problem.
  4. Lastly, individuals have a key role to play. In whatever cultural setting they are in, they must learn and be taught to adopt sharing and caring behaviours, even, or especially, for those who are not like them. Perhaps most importantly, they should reject the role of violence and force as a solution to socio-political problems.
  5. Apart from providing relief in affected areas of the world, MERCY Malaysia, and organisations like it, have the ability to transform spectators into stakeholders by enabling ordinary individuals to join them in making a difference. Let no one doubt the pivotal power of the caring individual.
  6. I commend MERCY Malaysia for its untiring work, which clearly demonstrates the fact that humanity is capable of the finest and most noble qualities. My prayers and thoughts go with you in all your endeavours.

I wish you all well in your deliberations at this conference. Thank you.

Wabillahi taufiq walhidayah

Wassalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.


  1. United Nations Human Development Report, 1994
  2. SIPRI,
  3. Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, 2011
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