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International Humanitarian Law: not worth the paper it is written on?

Almost 80% of humanitarian work takes place in countries and regions affected by conflicts, where the proliferation of armed and terrorist groups and the easy availability of weapons generate complex operating environments. The increasingly complex humanitarian needs have overloaded the system.

The first World Humanitarian Summit will be held on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul. The lives of some 125 million people have been severely devastated because of conflicts and disasters; a steadily increasing figure compared to previous decades. Tens of millions of people receive vital humanitarian aid, but millions continue to suffer from the lack of adequate assistance and protection. And this is because both national governments and the international community have failed or have not had the will to end the main political and environmental causes of humanitarian crises.
Almost 80% of humanitarian work takes place in countries and regions affected by conflicts, where the proliferation of armed and terrorist groups and the easy availability of weapons generate complex operating environments. The increasingly complex humanitarian needs have overloaded the system.
Why do we need a humanitarian summit?
The World Humanitarian Summit could be an opportunity to strengthen our collective responsibility to save lives, prevent and alleviate human suffering, and protect the dignity of people affected by crises.
There are several issues to be addressed at the Summit. In his report “One Humanity Shared Responsibility”, the UN Secretary-General identifies five major collective core responsibilities: 1.Preventing and resolving conflicts; 2. Upholding norms that safeguard humanity (international humanitarian law); 3.Honouring our commitment to not leave “anyone behind”; 4. Changing people’s lives by ending needs; 5. Investing in humanity.
Each of these core responsibilities has elements that require deeper reflection on their scope, but there is one key and paramount collective responsibility: upholding international humanitarian law. This law, based on the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols, aims to limit suffering caused by war and mitigate its effects. Guaranteeing and applying this law is the most effective way, under all circumstances, to save and protect human lives and to ensure the survival of the values of humanity.

Responsibilities of the international community
However, we are witnessing an increasing and flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, due to deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian targets. For example, we need only recall the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz a few months ago, or the unjustified violence suffered by refugees in Idomeni, not to mention the EU-Turkey agreement.
Most victims of armed conflict today are civilians. Moreover, in many cases the parties involved in conflicts deliberately and irresponsibly use the population as a weapon of war. The current situation is extremely serious and its main result -the increasing number of innocent victims – is simply intolerable and inhuman.

The 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent was held at the end of 2015 in Geneva. One of the main topics of the meeting was precisely the establishment of a monitoring mechanism –similar to an observatory- to exchange views on issues related to respect for International Humanitarian Law, incorporating thematic discussions and the submission of regular voluntary reports.
Despite the great efforts and energy invested, this much anticipated commitment has not been achieved- and I personally see it as difficult to achieve- in the short run-up to the World Humanitarian Summit. The main reason is that the political and economic interests of many states, including several of the richest, still prevail over universal principles and human rights.
And I wonder how many innocent lives must still be lost to reverse this sad reality, until there is a more humane world. If we really want the humanitarian system to be efficient and effective, it is urgent for states and political leaders to reach a mutual agreement to guarantee the rule of international humanitarian law.

*By Barbara Mineo, Humanitarian Action Group of the Coordinadora, published in Público.

Source: Coordinadora ONG para el Desarrollo España