7 times global leadership fell short in 2023

Global leaders have persistently allowed human rights violations this year, leaving communities facing an uncertain future

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: DW)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: DW)


In a world grappling with numerous geopolitical crises, a series of failures to act — or act effectively and decisively — saw world leaders exacerbating the existing issues instead of solving them diplomatically, leading to prolonged conflicts and crises. Here's a look at seven critical developments where international leadership let us down badly:

1. The ‘Israel–Hamas’ war, aka the Gaza Offensive

Despite numerous attempts to broker peace in the long-standing Israel–Palestine conflict, world leaders have failed to establish any lasting resolution — or to convince Israel to pull out of the occupied territories in Gaza or the West Bank.

The 2021 war had already highlighted the participants’ (and their patrons’) inability to address root causes and forge a sustainable framework for peace, and that has resulted perpetuating a cycle of violence in the region.

According to Israel’s own account, 164 of its soldiers have died during the ground operations in Gaza. Approximately 1,200 Israelis, again per the latest official counts — most of them civilians — were killed on 7 October when Hamas took its attack surprisingly wide and deep into Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome and took about 240 hostages as well.

In Gaza, meanwhile, at least 21,320 Palestinians have been killed at the time of writing (29 December) and over 55,000 injured since 7 October. Close to 9,000 of those killed are children, and that’s without counting the bodies buried beneath rubble. A staggering 1.9 million Palestinians — more than 80 per cent of the total population in Gaza — have been internally displaced.

In all this, repeated attempts to moot a humanitarian ceasefire or at least let sufficient aid flow in past Israeli blockades has been denied. The US has vetoed UN resolutions to sanction Israel or insist on a ceasefire at least thrice. Several Western democracies, many of them the same European colonial presences in West Asia that enabled the creation of Israel, have sent aid and support to Israel, while condemning Hamas overwhelmingly.

2. Russia’s war on Ukraine

Global leaders faced another significant setback in first failing to curtail the escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine into a full-scale war, and then being unable to stem the hostilities all year. Diplomatic efforts proved insufficient, revealing a failure of international relations and conflict prevention protocols. Unsurprisingly, yet another nation with veto power in the UN — this time Russia itself — created a power imbalance that resisted the effective application of economic and political pressure.

The consequences continue to reverberate in the geopolitical landscape.

The 20-month war, the longest in Europe since World War II, has caused tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of military casualties.

About 8 million Ukrainians had been internally displaced and more than 8.2 million had fled the country by April 2023, creating Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. Extensive environmental damage caused by the war, which has been described as an 'ecocide', contributed to food crises worldwide as well.

And now, with all eyes on Gaza, Ukraine seems to be left with a begging bowl, pleading for attention not to be diverted from its plight. (And in this one instance, continuing hostilities in Palestine seem to have almost as much of an advantage for Russia as its traditional antithesis, the US.)

3. Women’s rights in Iran

Justice for women oppressed by the current conservative regime remains elusive, and again, the international community seems helpless or disinterested in the plight of women protesters in Iran. A lack of decisive action has been prominent, with world leaders failing to exert sufficient pressure on the theocratic Iranian government, allowing human rights violations against women to persist in the name of ‘morality’.

According to an estimate, 500 people were killed, including at least 70 minors, and more than 22,000 were arrested by the morality police during the year-long anti-hijab protests. Though the (literal, in this case) morality police were finally disbanded this year, the failure of collective global action — or even sanctions and censure — undermines the pursuit of justice and equality by women in Iran.

It's surely worth at least an aside that Iran is a major source of the world’s petroleum and natural gas supply and has the biggest copper deposits anywhere, hard for any contemporary economy to ignore.

4. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, international leaders have struggled to ensure continued education and human rights for girls. In 2023, Afghanistan remains the only country in the world where women and girls are denied education because of their gender.

Currently, as per the United Nations, 80 per cent of school-aged Afghan girls and young women — 2.5 million people — are out of school. Nearly 30 per cent of girls in Afghanistan have never had any primary education.

Despite global calls for the protection of women’s rights, the failure to enforce mechanisms to safeguard girls’ education and freedoms has left them disenfranchised and facing an uncertain future in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Now add to that the world’s failure to act as Pakistan sent 375,000 Afghans back to an uncertain future in Afghanistan, deported some 20,000 (according to Human Rights Watch) — of which the women and girls are in danger not only of remaining uneducated and unemployed, but being trafficked or forced into child marriage.

5. Civil war in Sudan

Global leaders have also proven ineffective in first preventing and then resolving the civil war in Sudan, a situation that has only escalated through 2023. The failure to promote reconciliation and engage in effective conflict resolution has resulted in prolonged suffering, the world’s largest internal displacement (over 7 million people, of which 5.4 million have been displaced in the 6 months since April alone) and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

The fighting between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces since Ramadan has also halted production in the territory, sending the economy into a nosedive, and rendered an estimated 70-80 per cent of hospitals non-functional per the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Meanwhile, like the Gaza crisis and the Afghanistan mess, this situation is sure to have cross-generational impact, as 19 million children are out of school. Worse, a total of 17.7 million people are living with acute hunger, 4.9 million of them at emergency levels of malnourishment.

6. COP28, aka the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference underscored yet again our leaders’ inability to reach a comprehensive agreement and take decisive actions to combat climate change worldwide.

While on the one hand the tally sheet — and the extreme weather and other ecological crises that 2023 saw — advertised how very little has changed in any nation since the Paris Accord, it was worsened by the failure to secure commitments and implement impactful measures as the climate crisis escalates, impacting communities globally. Once again, it would seem economic and geopolitical imperatives in the shorter-term win over wisdom that has long-term impact.

There was so much finger-pointing and whataboutery and watering down of the final message required that the conference had to be extended — and even after that, the world was left wondering what exactly emerged that could be considered useful or practical in the months and years ahead.

7. Migration to the US and Europe

Our world leaders — especially in the US and across the European Union — have long struggled to develop effective policies addressing the issue of migration from comparatively disadvantaged countries (and not just those in a state of war or internal crisis).

Their failure to implement comprehensive strategies for economic development, conflict resolution and humanitarian aid has contributed to the ongoing migration crises, with profound implications for affected populations.

However, just when we thought that after Trump’s Mexican wall was the most inhumane thing the world narrowly headed off, things came to a head in 2023 — with the EU tightening its asylum rules at the end of the year during an ‘overhaul’ of its migration system.

Dozens of refugee rights groups are crying themselves hoarse to explain that this new set of strictures will end in the setting up of no-man’s-land ghettos along EU borders, of impoverished asylum seekers in another major humanitarian crisis that the entire European territory is too ill-equipped to handle. They have called the ‘new solution’ both cruel and unworkable — but there is little enough chance they will be heard better or heeded any more in 2024 than they were in 2023…

All seven of these developments underscore the pressing need for stronger international cooperation and more effective leadership to address global challenges and work towards sustainable solutions. The biggest failure, clearly, is to enable anything remotely approaching equity.

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