Some Rules Aren’t Meant to be Broken: Reestablishing Humanitarian Principles

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Some Rules Aren’t Meant to be Broken: Reestablishing Humanitarian Principles
By: Sarah Minot

Provision of healthcare and protection of civilians are already daunting tasks in conflict ridden environments. However, in recent conflicts, the traditional rules of humanitarian neutrality and efforts to avoid civilian targeting have eroded. Long standing norms rooted in the Geneva Convention have been dramatically violated in recent years as the frequency and severity of attacks against health workers, facilities, and civilians have increased. Bombings perpetrated by both state and non-state actors occurred against hospitals in five countries in the last year – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Targeting of health workers and facilities also occurs in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. A Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan was hit several times in October 2015 during a bombing by U.S.-led forces where at least 42 patients and staff were killed. On February 15, 2016 four hospitals in Syria were bombed in a single day. More recently, an airstrike of al-Quds hospital in Aleppo killed at least 27 people. In Yemen, 600 health facilities are no longer functional after a year of conflict. The World Health Organization reported that more than 1,000 people were killed in attacks in healthcare facilities across 19 countries in 2014 and 2015. Of those attacks, 62 percent were deliberate.

The humanitarian system is under attack and overwhelmed as protracted crisis after protracted crisis demands response and places humanitarians at greater and greater risk. International actors will need to adapt to learn to operate in this unstable environment, but it is important to ensure that long standing humanitarian principles do not continue to erode. Norms must be reestablished and enforced to ensure that targeting of civilians, humanitarian actors, and health workers does not become the new normal of conflict.

The international community has taken steps to raise awareness and has called for the return to international humanitarian norms. On May 3, 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 2286 that reaffirms humanitarian law and the principles of protection of civilian and health workers in armed conflict. The resolution calls for an end to impunity and documentation of any violations to record specific acts of violence against health facilities and personnel. However, an end to impunity and a cessation of attacks is unlikely to occur when states are complicit in the very acts they are decrying.

On May 24-25, 2016, the first ever World Humanitarian Summit brought together governments, non-governmental organizations, and multi-national organizations to better coordinate and address humanitarian crises stemming from conflict and disasters, and transform the way aid is delivered. The summit did yield a commitment to provide more funding and direct more resources to local governments. Despite this effort, many key players were not present at the summit and few actions were agreed upon to address the current crises that are increasingly overwhelming the system.

Action beyond resolutions, pledges for increased funding, and summits are vital to ensure international law and humanitarian principles are upheld and don’t continue to erode. There are several concrete steps that can help reestablish the rules of war and build toward justice and an end to impunity. In the near term, the international community must establish and enforce  restrictions on targeting civilians and health facilities in conflict settings. There was some success in improving humanitarian aid access and a decrease in violence stemming from the February 2016 ceasefire in the Syrian conflict, but negotiations and talks can place an emphasis on protection of civilians and opening up avenues for humanitarian access. The UNSC resolution called for protection of civilians and health workers but the UN must keep track of violations, and when able, identify the parties that violated the rules so that justice can be a possibility in the future. Due to the nature of the perpetrators of the violations, it is likely that NGOs will need to take the lead and assist the UN in documenting and collecting evidence on incidents.

Additionally, in the near term, humanitarian agencies can work on training health providers and work closely with the military to enhance safety mechanisms for workers in dangerous environments and to expand access to populations in need. This will be a balancing act considering principles of independence and neutrality as central humanitarian elements, but in order to protect civilians and workers, coordination is vital.

Justice mechanisms are crucial in the long term to hold perpetrators of humanitarian violations accountable, but international justice mechanisms like the International Criminal Court take years after conflicts end to make progress in prosecuting violators and the court has limited reach. That doesn’t mean that international courts aren’t a future tool for reestablishing the rules of war. However, it will take years to move forward, so this cannot be the only tool for justice. Domestic courts are additional avenues for justice and ending impunity in the long term – in both the states where the conflict is occurring and in other states affected by the conflict. Domestic mechanisms are often more robust than the international system so utilizing these courts whenever possible is another potential avenue. For example, former president of Chad from 1982 to 1990, Hissène Habré, was found guilty of crimes against humanity, torture, and sex crimes in a special court in Senegal. In addition to court systems, transitional justice is another tool that can be utilized in post-conflict environments to help address the needs of victims and promote healing in societies that have suffered from years of war and trauma.

There is no easy fix or avenue for stopping targeting of civilians and easing the burden on the humanitarian system – particularly when perpetrators expand beyond state signatories to international conventions – but taking action in the near term while the conflicts are still ongoing and in the long term once conflicts have subsided is imperative to ensure humanitarian principles do not disappear in the future.

Sarah Minot is the program coordinator and research associate for the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) at CSIS. Other posts by .


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