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The first World Humanitarian Summit comes at a critical time. Armed conflicts with a range of actors are raging across the globe, with civilians paying the highest price. Displacement from conflict and natural disaster has reached levels unseen since World War II. And the shortfall in funding for humanitarian crises is growing by the year.

So, can this summit help?

The topics to be covered offer a springboard for action. Governments, United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, will convene in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016 to discuss how to halt the pernicious assault on international human rights and humanitarian law and to improve protection for people in need. They will address the funding and structure of humanitarian aid.

At the same time, the governments that will meet to discuss solutions include serious rights violators who may have little or no interest in disturbing the status quo. Governments frequently exacerbate the harm from conflicts and natural disasters by hindering access to humanitarian aid or failing to support humanitarian action. One major humanitarian group, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which suffered attacks over the past year on 75 hospitals that it managed or supported, has withdrawn from the summit because, it says, the event will serve as a “fig-leaf” to cover systemic violations, above all by governments.

The summit’s envisaged commitments are non-binding, so pledges made will merely start a process to improve the humanitarian system. For the summit to have lasting impact, governments will need to respect and enforce their commitments. Appeals to our common humanity will fail without mechanisms to carry out those appeals.

The list of concerns is long. Will governments and armed groups stop using sexual violence as a tool of war? Will they refrain from bombing and shelling populated areas with explosive weapons that have wide-area effects? Will governments grant refugees a fair chance to seek asylum? Will they protect schools from attack and military use and endorse the international Safe Schools Declaration? Will they protect hospitals and health workers from attack and respect the recent UN Security Council resolution that condemned attacks on medical facilities in conflict? And will they do more to help the people most in need, such as children, older people, and people with disabilities?

The summit in Istanbul offers an opportunity. Governments should seize it.

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