The crisis the Geneva Conventions confronts was vividly brought home after the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2286 in April 2016, condemning by a unanimous vote (including Russia) the proliferation of flagrant violations, reaffirming the central value of international humanitarian law, and calling for states to honor their commitments. Almost immediately that step was rendered meaningless by continued aerial bombardment of civilians in Syria by the Assad regime and its Russian partners.
Sadly, the crisis runs far deeper than Syria. It is not just in that single most obscene instance where the hospital, the clinic, and the health provider have been transformed into the enemy, forced into the center of the battlefield. The same is seen in a total of 23 conflicts, including those in Yemen and South Sudan, as documented by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition.
Across multiple conflicts, health systems and humanitarian operations stand in ruin, through the deliberate actions of state powers and non-state insurgents. According to the United Nations, in Syria, where 400,000 civilians have died, the overwhelming majority at the hand of the government. The Assad regime and its Russian partners have for years systematically targeted hospitals, clinics and humanitarian convoys.
Around 800 doctors have been killed, and more than 500 health facilities have been destroyed and seriously damaged in the conflict. A health system in collapse has been a key factor spurring 11 million Syrian to flee their homes, of whom 5 million have fled the country, contributing to instability in neighboring states and Europe.
In Yemen, we have witnessed in the past two years the indiscriminate aerial bombing of health facilities by the Royal Saudi Air Force, a devastating blockade of the importation of fuel and medicines, the destruction of water and sanitation systems, and the implosion of the state. The result has been the acute malnutrition of more than 500,000 children, famine on the march, no health access for 15 million of the country’s 27 million citizens, and an epic cholera outbreak, unlike anything we have seen in the modern era, with around 540,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths.
How did we get to this point? From both past accumulated abuses and from recent new accelerators. The surge of violence we see today against health providers and humanitarian operations reflects lessons learned from earlier wars in Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Balkans, Central America, Biafra in Africa and other cases, where combatants discovered that this cruel tactic of war weakened and undermined armed adversaries and broader societies, with no serious consequences.
But today, the threat to the health sector and humanitarians, and the impact this threat poses to the Geneva Conventions, has in recent years grown far worse, far larger in scope and scale, and far more open-ended and protracted. That is due to a several new factors. Assad, with his Russian partners, has achieved an unthinkable scale and scope of destruction, undeterred. It is a colossal example of impunity that profoundly shakes confidence in international humanitarian law, well beyond the borders of Syria.
The advent of the age of counterterrorism after 9/11 has blurred the lines between terrorism and humanitarianism. It has resulted in heavy reliance on aerial campaigns that are prone to both violent abuse and mistakes and capable of leveling populated flashpoint cities and towns like Aleppo. A widening disorder roils the Middle East and parts of Africa, yielding wars with no solutions and contributing to the record 65 million displaced people around the world. Technological changes in communications, media and weaponry have fundamentally altered warfare while making the recording of violent abuse far easier.
Despite these trends, there are many who simply refuse to give up, who continue to fight, in the midst of extreme danger. Hope is sustained by diplomats in the trenches, groups carefully documenting abuses, non-government campaigners who insist on high-level political action, and doctors, nurses and first responders who get out of bed every morning to continue their service, often in hidden underground bunkers.
These efforts, while absolutely essential, are nonetheless simply not enough. Much more is needed. There may be an opportunity contained in this dangerous moment. In the course of international humanitarian law’s 150 years of history, there have been eras of deep technological change in warfare and excessive violent abuse in the late 19th century, and during and after World War I and World War II. In these moments, international humanitarian law has faced profound tests and been improved.
The world’s leaders, both civilian and military, must concentrate on forming a coalition of determined powers committed to systematically revalidate and renew the Geneva Conventions, updating them to take account of the new and fundamentally different forms of warfare and insecurity we now face, and strengthening them to be truly more effective guarantees of protection and accountability. Such an ambition certainly cannot be achieved quickly, easily or through just a few simple steps. But moving deliberately in that direction is essential.
The Trump administration has demonstrated repeatedly its preference to retreat from world leadership and distance itself from a values-based foreign policy. There is still a chance to change course. Any hope of progress in rescuing the Geneva Conventions and stopping the slide into barbaric violence against the innocent will rely on U.S. leadership and the reaffirmation of American values.
The United States has a special obligation to set a higher standard of behavior for itself, in both its civil and military institutions, and set examples that others will follow. It needs to set a priority in working effectively with other powers, including some like China, Saudi Arabia and others which have been on the sidelines. The United States simply cannot afford, at this fragile and dangerous historical moment, to retreat from the world stage and take a back seat.
J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He served in the Clinton administration, on the committee staff of the U.S. House of Representatives, and taught for 12 years at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is the executive producer and director of a newly released documentary, “The New Barbarianism,” that examines the surge of violence against the health sector and humanitarians across multiple conflicts around the world.