Accounting for Human Rights: Lessons from Syria

By Sean Luna McAdams*

 

This past 20th of June marked World Refugee Day. On that day, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)documented that one in every 122 people on the planet are either refugees, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Since June, this situation has only worsened as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have shown up on European shores fleeing deepening and increasingly fragmented conflict among al-Assad’s government forces, the Islamic State (IS), and rebel forces of varying political stripes. Indeed, the UNHCR reports that now over half of Syria’s population of 22 million (11.6 million to be exact) is either registered as refugees, seeking asylum, or internally displaced. This dire landscape offers lessons to human rights activists about advocacy in violent contexts, borders and refugees, the efficacy of international law, among many others. However, I am going to focus on how this specific crisis shows the importance of mainstreaming budgetary analysis into human rights advocacy of all kinds.

Conflict areas are shaded in orange. There are nearly 7.6 million internally displaced persons in Syria. Source: BBC News and UNHCR.

Conflict areas are shaded in orange. There are nearly 7.6 million internally displaced persons in Syria. Source: BBC News and UNHCR.

A human rights based approach to budgetary analysis is a relatively new advocacy tool. It provides a way for advocates to assess a state’s prioritization of its limited resources using human rights as the central criteria. While groundbreaking human rights organizations like Fundar have used budgetary analysis to advance advocacy on economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCRs), there has not been as much focus on how this tool can aid advocacy for civil and political rights (CPRs). I suspect this in part grows from the fact that while international law on the former alludes to budgets by instructing states to progressively realize these rights through the use of the maximum available resources, there is an oft-cited understanding that CPRs are “free.” And while it’s true that many CPRs involve the state stopping actions like torture or persecution rather than providing services, the crisis in Syria shows that there are costs associated with this “stopping” process. In particular, it shows that to effectively defend these rights in crisis situations, states must be prepared to shelter refugees.

Yet the developments say otherwise. To cite but one example, the UN World Food Program has been forced to cut food rations to just USD$13.50 a monthfor Syrian refugees in Lebanon and warned it may have to cut aid entirely to refugees in Jordan, as lack of funding and growing demands create an impossible challenge for the agency. In order for the international law and institutions that human rights advocates have so successfully lobbied for in the past six decades to be consequential, they must be adequately funded so as to have the operational capacity to implement their mandates. Budgetary analysis can help ensure that relevant agencies and states have the resources they need to proactively address crises as they develop.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The UN shows this mismatch between institutional resources and demands. This surge in refugees and asylum-seekers has put unbearable strain on UN agencies; in early September The Guardian reported that of the USD$3.79 billion requested to provide basic food, shelter, and health services to refugees only USD$0.9 billion had actually been funded. This has arguably accelerated the Syrian exodus to Europe in recent months. The European Union (EU) recently agreed to boost aid to agencies by an additional USD$1.1 billion. Nevertheless, even this generous increase will not fill the financial hole created by increasing demands in part from the crisis in Syria, which according to the UNHCR still needs upwards of USD$708 million.

Refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via IHH Humanitarian Relief Fund.

Refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via IHH Humanitarian Relief Fund.

Brazilian President Dilma Roussef offers perhaps the best example of the gap between rhetorical and financial support. On September 21st Dilma wrote an op-ed proclaiming Brazil’s solidarity with Syrian refugees and emphasizing that “Brazil welcomes refugees with open arms.” However, looking at the UNHCR’s 2015 budget, we see that Brazil contributed a measly $743,133 compared with the U.S.’s $1.2 billion. If Brazil’s contribution was proportional to the U.S.’s controlling for GDP, its contribution should be 240 times larger, around $179 million. Moreover, as opposed to Europe, refugees in Brazil lack any kind of state assistance. The lack of assistance coupled with a troubled economy in recession and rising unemployment makes Brazil an unattractive host for refugees. While Dilma shows an admirable commitment to humanitarian values, her statement is just that: a show.

While the European Union could be lauded for its strong support for UN agencies, looking at preceding EU budgets shows a similar disregard for truly building capacity to cope with an influx of refugees. Looking at the EU budget for 2007-2011, the EU and its member states invested more than €1.03 billion(about USD$1.16 billion) in its External Borders Fund while the European Refugee Fund received only €323 million (about USD$363 million). While the start of the crisis in 2011 following the Arab Spring was largely unprecedented, there has been a willful lack of response from European states to ready themselves for a likely influx of refugees as the conflict fragmented and intensified. If the EU had prioritized refugee assistance to the same degree as border security, border states today would not be as wholly unprepared for the crisis as they are.

These examples all show the importance of mainstreaming budgetary analysis into all types of human rights advocacy. As part of our accountability work, we need to assess whether the budgets allocated for human rights implementation actually reflect an adequate contribution based on commitments and income levels, among other variables. Without this analysis, the institutions and laws we have fought so hard to make will lack the operational capacity to address issues as they develop. This approach not only provides advocates with a tool to push for proactive approaches to crisis management, it could also help to emphasize refugees’ agency by including possible benefits of immigration into the calculus. The current reactionary approach lends itself to the deepening of crises to the detriment of both funders and rights-bearers.

 

*Sean Luna McAdams is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).