Humanitarians and Civilians at Risk: Why Peacebuilders and the World Should Care

Op-ed: Melanie Greenberg is the CEO and President of Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Arguing that the world is currently witnessing the highest level of human suffering since the Second World War, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convened the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul on May 23 in order to take action. Participants from 173 Member States, including 55 Heads of State and Government, pledged to undertake concrete steps to prevent conflict and enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflict. According to a robust body of International Humanitarian Law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and noncombatants are to be protected, and the means and methods of warfare restricted. These are bedrock principles of international law, and are considered the most sacrosanct rules protecting innocent civilians during times of war.

The Summit saw a renewed commitment to these principles of International Humanitarian Law, with promises to prevent atrocities, hold violators accountable, assure access for aid to those in need, and incorporate locals, women and youth into local development, outreach and aid projects.

While these commitments provide momentum for positive change, it is still a blatant fact that “countless examples of violations,” remain, according to the ICRC. Military forces in a range of current conflicts have displayed a callous disregard for International Humanitarian Law, increasingly making civilians illegal targets in a broad range of settings – from bombing hospitals, to using illegal weapons like cluster bombs on civilians, and killing aid workers. In Syria, civilians have been routinely targeted, as exemplified by the recent bombing of a hospital in Aleppo that killed 27 people, including children and doctors. According to the Aid Workers Security Database, Afghanistan is the most dangerous place in the world for NGOs, with aid workers and journalists being killed at an alarming rate, and impunity for the killers. The US and other government forces have repeatedly– mistakenly or intentionally – attacked humanitarian sites; examples include the US bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October 2015 and the Israeli bombing of UNRWA shelters in Gaza.

By failing to denounce and prevent these acts, world leaders send the message that this violence against humanitarian workers and civilians is acceptable. The World Humanitarian Summit provided an important opportunity for governments to rededicate themselves to the norms of civilian protection and International Humanitarian Law. Though there is still a lack of official censure for clear violations of International Humanitarian Law, this Summit made possible a more hopeful vision for civilian protection on a greater scale moving forward.

At the Summit, world leaders addressed war’s toll on civilians and humanitarian workers. The Summit concluded with over 1,500 commitments, ranging from a Grand Bargain about localizing aid funding to increasing the quality of education and helping the most at-risk states handle future development consequences of climate change.

The Alliance for Peacebuilding calls on the US and all governments to recognize protecting civilians and aid workers as a priority now and live up to their commitments. The current level of human suffering requires us to live up to the standards that the world put in place after WWII when we said, “never again.” These are not quaint relics of a simpler time – these laws are powerful forces for stopping cycles of violence, and preventing untold misery for innocent civilians. We must not only denounce violations of humanitarian law, but just as importantly, the US should take measures to ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law, including teaching these principles to our armed forces, publicizing the importance of these laws for the general public, and enacting and enforcing clear and effective punishment for violations. If we let these laws continue to wither, they will become obsolete and useless. We must hold officials and organizations accountable for the commitments they made at the Summit, lest they fade into mere rhetoric.

As peacebuilders, we need to substantively champion International Humanitarian Law, making the case that by ignoring these laws, we not only extend human suffering to levels unseen since WWII, but we also ensure continuing cycles of violence.

Cover Photo: Arnold Felfer/UN