Al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, Syria after it was hit by airstrikes in April 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
It’s a sad and familiar pattern:
April 2015: Two brothers working for the local branch of the Yemen Red Crescent Society shot dead in the southern port city of Aden while evacuating wounded people to a waiting ambulance. Both were wearing the red crescent emblem. The same day, two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers were killed while retrieving dead bodies and preparing shelters for people fleeing the fighting.
For each person lost, a wake of devastation. Family and colleagues shocked and grieving. Desperately wounded or sick people left without care. National Society, IFRC and ICRC leaders issuing joint statements condemning the attacks and calling on all parties to respect international humanitarian law (IHL) and to allow humanitarian workers safe and unimpeded access to people in need. And then the cycle repeats itself:
September 2015: Two Yemen Red Crescent Society volunteers killed along with other civilians during an airstrike in the Al-Swaida area of Taiz, bringing to eight the number of Yemen Red Crescent Society staff and volunteers killed in the course of their duties between March and September 2015.
November 2015: Two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers killed when a mortar shell hit a civilian area of Homs as they transported supplies as part of a project helping children traumatized by the conflict.
The list goes on
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, more than 52 Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and 8 Palestine Red Crescent aid workers have lost their lives trying to help others. These deaths are not isolated. They come over a backdrop in which laws protecting civilians in conflict are regularly ignored and in which the use of high-impact explosives in densely populated urban areas has become routine. On the same day the two Yemeni volunteers were killed in September, for example, more than 130 people attending a wedding in Yemen were reportedly killed by an airstrike.
This is not to say that IHL is never respected. In many war zones, people take part in operations on a daily basis in which aid workers gain assurances from fighters — based on humanitarian principles and law — that they will be not be fired on or otherwise harassed.
Such events don’t often make the news or go viral on social media. But such examples do have a concrete impact. The ICRC points out, for example, that the rules of war allow the humanitarian access needed in Syria to provide fresh water to 20 million people. The Ottawa Convention prohibiting the use and manufacture of landmines, meanwhile, has reduced annuals deaths and injury from 20,000 per year to 3,000 per year.
In recent years, however, such signs of progress has been overshadowed by the constant bombardment of bad news for humanitarian law. In one day in Aleppo, Syria earlier this year, four medical facilities on both sides of the front lines were hit as hundreds of shells, bombs and mortars rained down on the city, killing more civilians.
“There can be no justification for these appalling acts of violence deliberately targeting hospitals and clinics,” Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC in Syria, said in a statement after the attack. “There is no safe place anymore in Aleppo. Even in hospitals.”
Several of the deadliest attacks hit hospitals supported by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). In just one case in May 2016, 14 people were killed, including at least two doctors. “[The attack] killed one of the last remaining paediatricians in the city,” Joanne Liu, the international president of the group, would later tell the United Nations (UN) Security Council.
But such incidents are not limited to the Syrian conflict. In October 2015, an United States warplane bombed a hospital run by MSF in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Forty-two people, including 24 patients, 14 health workers and four caretakers, were killed. After the bombing, an investigation by US officials determined the pilot did not intend to target the hospital and that the incident was due to a series of command-chain and pilot errors.
Whether tragic mistakes or part of intentional strategies, incidents of this nature have become far too commonplace. According to a recently formed consortium of leading international medical establishments, known as the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, hospitals in five countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen — have been subjected to both aerial bombing and explosives launched from the ground.
The increasing frequency of these attacks is one reason why in early May 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to strengthen protection for healthcare workers, the sick and wounded, hospitals and clinics in war zones. “When so-called surgical strikes end up hitting hospitals, something is deeply wrong,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the time.
Calls for action
For these reasons, many were hoping the World Humanitarian Summit, which convened in Istanbul in May to address important reforms in humanitarian aid, would also be a chance to galvanize greater support for the protection of civilians during conflict. One month prior to the Summit, the UN Secretary-General issued a report making just that case. In the event of conflict, he argued, adhering to IHL is the single most important way to reduce human suffering in armed conflicts.
But the structure of the Summit — a multi-stakeholder event that put non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on an equal footing with states — was not set up to result in binding commitments between states. Rather, its structure tended to focus on agreements between donors and aid groups and reforms within the aid sector.
For some organizations, such as MSF, this emphasis came at the expense of high-level political efforts to protect civilians and medical workers. Three weeks before the meeting, MSF pulled out of the Summit in protest. “The Summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored,” said MSF in a statement.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement took a different approach. Although only 55 heads of state attended, the Summit still offered an important platform to push for action in support of IHL’s basic protections.
“What will future historians remember from our present time?” ICRC President Peter Maurer asked an audience at the Summit. “That millions of people were deliberately or carelessly targeted; that their homes, hospitals and schools were destroyed and entire cities bombed to rubble; that millions of men, women and children were forced into displacement? “We still have a shot at making a different kind of history.”
By the end of the Summit, 48 of the UN member states attending endorsed a joint statement affirming the importance of and adherence to IHL. But it remains to be seen if that pledge (signed by several states involved in ongoing conflicts) and the resolution of the UN Security Council will change the way warfare is being waged.
One of the key problems is that there is no consensus among humanitarian organizations, legal scholars and states on how to ensure compliance with the laws of war. Under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I, there are three potential mechanisms that a state party to an international armed conflict can trigger to investigate abuses.
Developed at a time when most conflicts were international disputes between states, these three mechanisms have rarely been put into action, in part because one of the main mechanisms — the international fact-finding commission — must be agreed on by both sides. Today, use of the commission is considered even less likely, given that most armed conflicts involve states and one or more non-state armed groups.
The roots of respect
In the absence of a clear and effective enforcement mechanism, efforts to encourage better compliance through softer methods continue. The ICRC, for example, continues to urge states, armed forces and non-state armed groups to weave principles embedded in the Geneva Conventions into both policy and practice. The efforts range from training sessions with soldiers and top brass, to lobbying lawmakers to enact legislation that codifies IHL into national laws.
In today’s increasingly complex conflicts, which feature a proliferation of non-state armed groups with a wide range of political philosophies and non-hierarchical command structures, that task has become more complicated.
Traditional IHL training and dissemination is possible when forces have a ‘vertical structure’ and clear chains of command. That is not so easy in many armed conflicts today.
“Look at Libya, where there were 246 armed groups registered in Misrata alone,” notes Fiona Terry, a research adviser at ICRC who has written extensively on humanitarian action in conflict. That said, Terry warns against the tendency of some observers to suggest that armed groups are the main violators of IHL. “States have also violated IHL and committed atrocities,” she says.
Given the changing nature of conflict, the ICRC wants to know more about why people do or don’t violate the rules of war, whatever kind of organization they may belong to. For this reason, the ICRC commissioned Terry and other researchers to update a 2004 study called The Roots of Behaviour in War. The update looks at what impact the integration of IHL training within armed forces has had, why violations occur and what restrains people from violating the rules of war. This research could inform new approaches best suited to today’s conflicts.
In the meantime, says Helen Durham, director of Law and Policy at the ICRC, part of the answer lies in doing a better job at communicating not just about violations but also about examples of when the law is working and the concrete impact that respect has on the ground. “Demonstrating the practical value of restricting suffering during war reminds everyone of the importance of IHL,” says Durham. “While it can seem really hard in the face of information received every day, it is in everyone’s interest to continue to raise the fact that even wars have limits.”
While violations of the rules of war tend to get more headlines, there are daily examples, such as this Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy, that show how international humanitarian law is a critical part of saving lives during conflict. This convoy heads towards the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib governorate, Syria in March 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
Hospital beds in the Médecins sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan on 26 April 2016, about six months after US airstrike killed dozens of patients. Photo: REUTERS/Josh Smith
The images appear daily on TV, online and in social media. Bombings of hospitals, extrajudicial executions and other gross violations of the rules of war. No wonder some question whether the system of laws protecting people during conflict is losing ground. At a recent forum entitled ‘Is the law of war in crisis?’, IHL expert Marco Sassòli answered that question with a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.
“International law generally is in crisis,” Sassòli told the gathering. “So it is not astonishing that IHL is also perceived as in a crisis.”
It’s not necessarily the laws that are at fault, however. “The Geneva Conventions contain the right answers,” even for today’s conflicts, he says. The problem is respect for those laws. But, Sassòli argues, despite the horrific headlines, there is more compliance with IHL than first meets the eye.
The rise of social media, citizen journalists and human rights organizations using mobile phones to document the effects of warfare on people who live in war zones has shed much-needed light on violations on IHL. “On the other hand, it creates the impression that IHL is only violated,” says Sassòli. “I have also seen plenty of respect for IHL in some conflicts. Understandably, NGO s and the media only report on violations.”
So to what degree are the Geneva Conventions respected? This is a difficult question to answer, but a recent ICRC project to update commentaries on the Geneva Conventions shows that for many states, IHL is very much a very relevant body of law applied in policy, in practice and in courtrooms.
Even in war zones such as Syria, the laws of war play a vital role, says Jean-Marie Henckaerts, head of the Commentaries Update Unit, part of ICRC’s Legal Division.
“Whenever we are able to gain access across front lines, delivering clean drinking water, medical aid and relief, it shows that these laws are saving lives,” he says. “We must avoid falling into a vicious cycle in which states and armed groups argue that because the laws are being violated, they are not working and so can be further violated.”