International Humanitarian Law is Broken


            New Orleans       Everything about war and armed conflict of any kind is disturbing for the simple reason that lives are at stake.  One of the supposed achievements of the 20th century in the wake of devastating world wars was not only creating of multinational forums to resolve conflicts, like the United Nations, but also negotiating and ratifying international codes of conduct to protect civilians and provide humanitarian support even in conflicts.  First in Ukraine and now in Gaza, there seems little doubt that these laws are almost dead letters because they are being broken with impunity.

In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations has been rendered impotent by the toothlessness of the Security Council and the privileging of select nations to unilaterally veto any measure.  The various failed ceasefire resolutions for the Gaza conflict, first vetoed by the United States, and now vetoed by China and Russia, furnish clear examples.  There is also little doubt that Russia has targeted civilians and whole communities in Ukraine.  This is a war of territorial expansion, so all civilians in Ukrainian territory are seen as combatants by Russia.  Worse, those on land it seeks to annex are seen as vassals.  Children are taken and patriated in Russia.  Fake elections are held under the gun.  Justice and peace have so little weight now that former President Trump has supposedly floated a plan for peace in Ukraine that would have Ukraine surrendering territory to Russia, thereby justifying the invasion.

If we ever thought international law and its humanitarian principles were effective, that fiction is also being shredded in the wake of Israel’s devastating and deadly attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen workers in a convoy returning from food distribution work.  Israel has said this was a “grave mistake.”  The vehicles were labeled clearly World Central Kitchen.  The organization had properly alerted the Israeli army of their mission and their route, which was acknowledged and supposedly safe.

Reading an analysis in the New York Times, that included many interviews with international law experts, indicates that even Israel’s apology and disclosure of their procedures and mistakes reveals numerous instances of ignoring humanitarian protections to such a degree that the attack is seen not as a tragic error, which of course it is, but a deliberate war crime for ignoring civilian and aid worker protections.  One says “in the case of doubt…attacking is itself a violation of international humanitarian law.”  Another says “They’re also vehicles involved in humanitarian missions, which are specifically protected.  The people on these trucks should be presumed to be individuals involved in humanitarian assistance missions, which means they are protected persons.”

As the Israeli military’s rationalizations for their errors are examined and the fact that in this conflict Israel has already killed 196 aid workers, experts argue more stridently than foreign secretaries that this is not simply a matter of “deconfliction” gone wrong.  The secretary general of Doctors Without Borders states plainly, “This pattern of attack is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence.  Our movements are shared, coordinated, and identified already.  This is about impunity, a total disregard for the laws of war.  And now it must become about accountability.”

Tragically for all of us, when the law itself is under attack, when too many countries are enablers of these attacks, when global organizations act impotently, how can anyone believe that there will be accountability?