Recovering humanitarian law


Even amid the chaos and catastrophes caused by war, there are internationally recognised limits on combatants’ behaviour. And yet, recent deliberate attacks on refugee camps and hospitals, in Syria and elsewhere, demonstrate an absolute disdain for basic humanitarian norms.

Indeed, such behaviour — which also includes obstruction of humanitarian aid and attacks on medical and humanitarian personnel — has become all too common.

Today, the United Nations estimates that approximately 125 million people are in need of humanitarian aid — a number that increases every year.

More than 60 million people — half of them children — are currently displaced as a result of violence or conflict.

In the past decade alone, the cost of humanitarian aid has increased 600 per cent, making it practically unsustainable.

With this concern in mind, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a World Humanitarian Summit, the first in the UN’s 60-year history.

The meetings and talks taking place in Istanbul on May 23-24 will address the five core items comprising the Agenda for Humanity: preventing and ending conflicts; defending humanitarian norms; reducing displacement, protecting women and girls and providing education in conflict zones; reinforcing national and local capacities to provide aid; and increasing investment in human development.

While the needs caused by natural disasters (some related to climate change) or epidemics are pressing, those related to conflicts are no less urgent.

Given the length and the magnitude of many of today’s conflicts — in which great powers are frequently involved — a bold and comprehensive international commitment is urgently needed for prevention and humanitarian response.

In addition to heads of state and government from all over the world, the summit will bring together civil-society and private-sector organisations, because when it comes to meeting humanitarian needs, everyone must be involved.

But while the responsibility for upholding humanitarian norms does not concern only governments, they are essential in enforcing them.

In order to prevent humanitarian disasters resulting from war, the first priority is to respect the norms aimed at safeguarding civilians.

The Geneva Conventions concern those people and areas that should remain beyond the scope of armed conflict and that should be guaranteed aid.

The fact that non-governmental actors, such as terrorists, disregard this law of war should under no circumstances be a pretext for countries to behave similarly.

What is at stake are both the lives of thousands of civilians and the enduring effectiveness of the multilateral system, by which these norms have been agreed and mechanisms to enforce them established.

On May 3, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for the protection of civilians in conflicts and strongly condemning recent violations of international humanitarian law.

These messages must be implemented concretely, especially among members of the Security Council.

This summit must, at a minimum, serve as a powerful call to states to uphold the established norms, but also to impel others to do so.

If we are to avoid losing a century of progress in promoting respect for human dignity, we must recognise that a country’s responsibility cannot be limited to its own behaviour in conflicts; it should extend to the actions of its allies.

We embraced these norms to avoid barbarism; if we want them to be respected, we need unflinching commitments from the great powers, such as a pledge not to support or remain in coalitions with those who hold humanitarian norms in contempt.

One of the measures, proposed in the summit’s preparatory report and aimed at effective enforcement of the norms, is the creation of a specialised monitoring body.

Moreover, all countries should recognise the authority of the international courts, such as the International Criminal Court, to facilitate prosecution of those who violate humanitarian law.

The report also supports a request made some time ago: that the Security Council’s five permanent members renounce their right to veto when measures to avoid mass atrocities are being decided.

This proposal is crucial to making the Security Council an essential and effective body in matters of global security.

It is vital that countries take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Istanbul summit to reaffirm their legal commitments to safeguard civilians in conflicts and to expedite the development of new mechanisms to prevent the victims of catastrophes from being abandoned.

Respecting the most fundamental norms that we have given ourselves to guarantee the protection of humanity is a serious matter.

It is our task as citizens to demand that our national leaders uphold these principles, so that the agreements reached in Istanbul do not remain utopian wishes.

The protection of human life — even in the midst of war and disasters — should be a concern for all of us, as global citizens.

Over the next three years, progress towards fulfilling the commitments made at the upcoming summit will be evaluated.

During this time, we must not let ourselves become accustomed to images of people drowning when they flee persecution or hospitals and refugee camps being razed.

The measure of human progress is whether such behaviour is regarded — by anyone — as normal or inevitable.

The writer was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary general of NATO and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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