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28 décembre 2016

2016 is the year humanitarian law and norms of war failed


Par : François Audet (expert associé) 2016 is the year humanitarian law and norms of war failed

The humanitarian law governing the conduct of combatants in war no longer holds. 2016, which is coming to an end, will be annus horribilis for the humanitarian community.

2016 is the year humanitarian law and norms of war failed

OpEd : Professor François Audet

Ottawa Citizen - December 23, 2016

 

In the chaos of a failed ceasefire, no hospital stands in Aleppo, civilians are being murdered with impunity in an attempt to flee the fighting and an unprecedented number of humanitarian workers from everywhere have been attacked or killed. The humanitarian law governing the conduct of combatants in war no longer holds. 2016, which is coming to an end, will be annus horribilis for the humanitarian community.

We are way beyond the point of apologies for human error or futile explanations for collateral damage. We are now launching missiles directly at hospitals filled with the wounded and medical personnel, bombing civilians fleeing conflict zones, attacking humanitarian convoys transporting medication to civilians. This happens not only Aleppo, but also Kunduz in Afghanistan, Malakal in Southern Sudan, Abs in Yemen, Al Shifa in Gaza, and the list goes on.

Signatory countries, including Canada, do not seem to understand or respect the rules of war. These rules, notably established in the Geneva Conventions, are nevertheless very simple, such as the duty to protect civilians and medical infrastructure. For this reason, if democratic countries do not respect humanitarian law, the behaviour of non-state organizations and terrorist groups in conflict zones can hardly be fathomed.

Many organizations and humanitarian leaders, such as Quebec’s Joanne Liu, president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have strongly condemned the situation. Liu even made her appeal directly to the UN Security Council, unsuccessfully. The International Committee of the Red Cross, whose core mandate is specifically to ensure respect for humanitarian law by the signatory countries, has also been active on all fronts this year negotiating at the highest diplomatic levels, on the front lines with combatant states.

Despite these unprecedented efforts by the humanitarian community, the record remains the same: the countries that have written and signed these international agreements no longer take them into account. While civilians are being massacred, northern communities remain stoic in the face of atrocities in Aleppo, Mosul or Juba. What is unacceptable has become routine and trivialized: the perfect recipe for indifference. Soon, this indifference will confound these northern communities – when faced with a flood of refugees asking to open their borders.

What’s alarming, therefore, is not only the systematic trend of violating international law by all the parties in armed conflicts, but what’s akin to a new war consensus where “everything is permitted”: Deliberately killing civilians, deliberately destroying recognized medical sites and attacking humanitarian organizations and civilian convoys. Attacking humanitarian agencies is not unlike destroying the last bastion of humanity that remains to us.

Violations of humanitarian law have always occurred and massacres of civilians have also taken place. Moreover, it can be agreed that this is the least respected right on the planet and it would be naive to believe that combatants are committed to human rights. However, the recent trend of systematic and deliberate violations of humanitarian infrastructure confronts us with the failure and inability of our institutions to protect civilians. As recently stressed by Louise Arbour, the failure of international institutions, such as the UN Security Council, lies with the member states and, it must also be said, somewhat with our own failings and our indifference.

Canada has done a great deal this year, opening its borders to Syrian refugees. But if it wants to “reclaim its rightful place” in the international arena and regain its added value, it must seriously consider becoming the voice for respecting humanitarian law and try, even modestly, to return some humanity to the ecosystems of new armed conflicts. Canada already has resources and expertise in this area: we are now waiting for its political leadership.

Prof. François Audet




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