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Humanizing Crises

The role of "humanitarian diplomacy" in mitigating the impact of natural disasters

20 September 2023

Natural disasters have been one of the causes threatening human lives and stability throughout history. Earthquakes, volcanoes, fires, diseases, and famines have left a vast number of casualties and losses that much outnumber the remnants of battle, prompting many people to flee in search of safe havens. Humans have worked hard to identify effective preventive and therapeutic methods to lessen losses when they occur in the face of these stressful natural events that cannot be stopped.

The severity of these disasters has increased due to the rise of dangers and pollutants affecting the environment and all of its components due to irrational human activity, as well as the increase in dense human settlements and cities of millions. This has prompted countries to develop improved disaster monitoring systems and regulations to control their spread. 

Despite these efforts, many recent events and disasters in the world and the Middle East region show that countries still need to build more effective and sustainable ways within a framework of human collaboration and solidarity.

As such, "humanitarian diplomacy" has evolved as a humane strategy that encourages the intensification of international and regional efforts to alleviate the burden on natural disaster-affected countries. In this context, we will focus on the severity of these disasters and their consequences for human security while also monitoring the role of "humanitarian diplomacy" and addressing it in the regional context in light of the natural disasters that affected several nations in the region in 2023.

Increasing Disasters

A disaster is a sudden incident or disruption that occurs, resulting in a variety of losses of life, facilities, infrastructure, and economic interests, depending on its nature. It necessitates a controlled preventive and curative strategy based on scientific methodologies, as well as a significant amount of participation, specialization, and adaptability.

Disasters are classified into several sorts based on their intensity, the circumstances that caused them, and their nature. In general, there are planned or unintentional human disasters, such as terrorist acts and their effects, as well as those caused by environmental contamination. There are also common disasters in which human error and negligence, in addition to environmental factors, play a role, such as toxic gas leaks, radiation, fires, and aviation and ship mishaps. This is in addition to natural catastrophes, including volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, landslides, and the spread of epidemics and severe infectious diseases.

The United Nations World Meteorological Organization confirmed in 2021 that the number of natural disasters caused by climate change has increased roughly fivefold over the last half-century, resulting in the deaths of over two million people and an economic and material cost of approximately USD 3.64 trillion. 

A number of natural catastrophes happened in 2023, resulting in many lives and human losses, most notably in the Middle East region. These include the February earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria, which killed approximately 51 thousand people, as well as the September earthquake in Morocco, which killed close to 3,000 people, and the September floods in the Libyan city of Derna, with the number of victims varying. While the government census is close to three thousand individuals, the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs said that at least 11,300 people were killed in this disaster, with more than 10,000 people still missing. In other parts of the world, fires have afflicted a number of countries, including Chile, as well as hurricanes that have hit Madagascar and New Zealand and a number of floods that have swept across countries such as Brazil.

With their weight and immediate and long-term consequences, natural disasters pose a threat to human security and a serious challenge to countries. Given its suddenness, as well as the terror and turbulence accompanying it, it necessitates quick decisions in a way that keeps it from deteriorating, in addition to extensive efforts to keep up with its long-term consequences.

"Humanitarian Diplomacy"

Natural disasters impose a significant burden on countries, particularly because coping with them entails more than just dealing with the immediate consequences but also a significant effort to deal with the long-term expenses on a variety of economic, social, and psychological levels.

It has frequently been demonstrated that countries, regardless of their potential and progress, require international assistance to allow for appropriate intervention in a race against time to contain the repercussions of disasters, in which time is an essential factor. 

In this context, "humanitarian aid diplomacy" has evolved as a civilized strategy that supports escalating efforts to face the international community's crises. This kind of diplomacy is merged with other types of parallel diplomacy, such as "cultural diplomacy," which refers to the use of knowledge, information, ideas, and the arts to build ideals and principles that promote intercultural discussion and communication. Other types include "civilizational diplomacy," which seeks to use the common human civilization to construct international behavior that promotes human growth, the avoidance of war, and the strengthening of international solidarity, or "spiritual diplomacy," which is significant due to its sanctity and evocation of universal human and cultural commonalities.

This "humanitarian diplomacy" is believed to be motivated by the desire to protect human rights and promote human development that maintains life and dignity. This is a vital process driven by states and various civil organizations and entities in times of crisis. It is a sophisticated expression that reflects the desire to "humanize" international relations and overcome political differences and narrow calculations during difficult periods whose repercussions exhaust the countries' budgets, negatively affecting many economic and social projects and hindering development efforts.

"Humanitarian diplomacy" is founded not only on moral and religious principles but also on a number of international agreements and laws that promote international cooperation and the preservation of human rights. It is also a tangible expression of diplomacy's goals as a means for achieving foreign policy.

Regional Context

Disasters affect all countries, developed and developing alike, but the consequences differ depending on these countries' capacities and capabilities, as well as their disaster response strategy. According to some data, disasters cost underdeveloped countries around 1% of their yearly GDP, while the ratio in industrialized countries does not reach 0.3% at most.

"Humanitarian diplomacy" was particularly active during the Covid pandemic, after many countries took the initiative to provide medical and technological aid to other countries in order to assist them in dealing with the consequences of the outbreak.

Given their geographical location, many Arab countries face a variety of natural risks and disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, forest fires, water scarcity, and pollution. This emphasizes the importance of strengthening and institutionalizing coordination and solidarity efforts. Many countries in the region have placed a high value on "humanitarian diplomacy," which has manifested itself on the ground in a number of crises. During the COVID pandemic, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and several other countries have directed aid to Arab and African countries.

When the earthquake struck Turkey on February 6, numerous Arab countries rushed to send humanitarian aid when images of the disaster and the misery it caused circulated in the media. The same applies to the earthquake that struck Syria in the same month, deepening the wounds of a population that had already suffered immensely as a result of the country's hostilities. The aid provided significantly reduced the suffering of the victims and those impacted who lost their homes and families due to the earthquake disaster and were forced to flee to other locations.

With the earthquake that shook Morocco this September, this diplomacy was thrust back into the spotlight, as the country received relief from the UAE, Qatar, Spain, and the United Kingdom, while other nations signaled their willingness to send additional assistance. The same issue arose with Libya's floods in September, which were met with widespread Arab and international solidarity.

Given that international relations do not accept pleasantries, countries' exterior behaviors are regulated by interest based on realistic reasoning. However, the painful human moments that follow tragedies of all kinds need to resolve international disagreements, rejecting conflicts and not politicalizing them. It is evident that the involvement of the world's countries in developing this diplomacy during disasters will make them the subject of enormous sympathy when comparable disasters occur.

Potential Opportunities

Throughout history, crises and disasters have frequently functioned to foster national solidarity and bridge community relations. At the international level, these catastrophes prompted the formulation of international law standards and the formation of organizations to prevent wars and conflicts that endanger humanity.

Due to the increasing interdependence among members of the international community as a result of rapid developments in international relations, the consequences of natural disasters have affected the international environment at the level of human displacement and economic and humanitarian problems, making international solidarity an obligation. "Humanitarian diplomacy" offers numerous options for settling differences and fostering a favorable public attitude that promotes communication, conversation, and the networking of interests between countries.

Thus, raising awareness of the gravity of the threats and risks posed by disasters at the national and international levels can help to establish humanitarian international relations based on dialogue, solidarity, and coordination of efforts in the face of an uncertain and challenging future.