By Julia Rainer
VIENNA (IDN) – “In Syria we have an attack on hospitals every 17 hours, in fact we say the most dangerous place in the country to be in is a hospital. So I ask you, does anyone still believe there is something like international humanitarian law?”
With these sobering words, Zedoun Al-Zoubi, CEO of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM International) which operates in Syria, addressed the audience during a panel discussion at the fourth Humanitarian Congress held on March 3 in the Austrian capital.
For the occasion, representatives from the most important aid organisations, UN agencies, civil society and academia came together at the University of Vienna to raise awareness on the link between humanitarian assistance and the refugee crisis under this year’s slogan “Forced to Flee – Humanity on the Run”.
Today, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 65 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide, the highest number of refugees ever exceeding post-World War II numbers. In turn, the refugee crisis contributes strongly to the growing need for humanitarian assistance, with a record 130 million people worldwide currently dependent on aid for survival.
Every day, humanitarian organisations send thousands of aid workers into the field under extremely harsh conditions and at great risk to their lives, but there is a growing trend to cut back on sending personnel to areas where they might or actually do become direct targets themselves.
This worrying development was discussed by a panel under the provocative heading of ‘The Erosion of International Law – Who Cares?’, which touched on the efficiency and effectiveness of the law, as well as the question of the extent to which members of the humanitarian community could still rely on the legal instruments in place to protect them, with discussion quickly focusing on the case of Syria, as one of the worst examples of the consequences of the erosion of international humanitarian law.
Panel members included Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Manfred Nowak, Secretary General of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC) and Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna, Zedoun Al-Zoubi of UOSSM International – Saving Lives in Syria, Vincent Bernard, editor-in-chief of the International Review of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Al-Zoubi, who is also a pacifist activist working with civil society organisations in Syria, shared his deep frustration with the continuous violations of international humanitarian law by all parties. He said his organisation had witnessed these attacks first hand, having frequently been targeted – several times by jetfighters – and the last time he had been Syria five colleagues were lost through brutal acts of aggression.
“Before the war in Syria we had not much experience in this field,” said Al-Zoubi, “there was no civil society. Later we were trained by international agencies in international humanitarian law, only to see that these laws are broken.” In his opinion, international humanitarian law exists, but is either unused or misused.
Permanent abuses can be witnessed regularly – from the siege of Aleppo and other cities, massacres and forced displacement to violence against women, lack of education with two million children out of schools and insufficient vaccination for young people.
Al-Zoubi admitted that he had lost faith in the legal instruments that were once set in place to protect civilians in particular and limit the effects of armed conflict, concluding: “I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I can’t see a single example in Syria where international humanitarian law was respected.”
Representing the ICRC, Bernard pointed to the difference between the erosion of law and erosion of compliance with law, saying that while the promotion of law is hard work, progress has been achieved in the field of humanitarian law.
Among others, he cited enhanced knowledge about conflict dynamics, technical solutions, attention to training of troops and the outcomes of debates on future technologies and new forms of weapons.
Investments in education and awareness-raising of the military actors involved are key in achieving improvements, he said, although he called for patience because the results of these measures will only be visible in the long run.
Bernard advocated not losing faith in the law, which would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but rather changing negative discourse and offering constructive solutions.
“We need to find ways to make the right people care. Who should care?,” he asked. “Who are the ones taking care of the conducts of military operations, who are the ones making decisions on selling weapons and to whom. These are the people we need to influence.”
According to Bernard, humanitarian law can provide a standard for measuring atrocities and serve as a tool to hold perpetrators accountable, but the panellists took different stances on the question of accountability.
For Al-Zoubi, the accountability of criminals certainly matters but, first and foremost, peace has to be ensured even if that comes at the painful cost of granting some perpetrators impunity. OHCHE’s Gilmore, on the other hand, stressed that the international community owes it to the victims to document violations and envisage the possibility of accountability, even if peace is indeed the first priority. Otherwise it would be complicit in the atrocities committed against innocent individuals.
“Should we just let the stories of people’s horror pass undocumented?,” she asked. “Shall we never recall which children, men and women were murdered? We cannot let the promise of justice someday evaporate.”
Turning to the effectiveness and responsibility of international institutions, Gilmore called for courageous, visionary leadership of the international community in a selfless matter in order to design a system that would not advance its own interests.
“Until we infuse the United Nations with the very principles on which it was founded and we put it in its architecture and its procedures and its distribution of power and influences, it is doomed to work against the values on which it was founded,” she argued. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 March 2017]
Photo (from left to right): Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); Manfred Nowak, Secretary General of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC) and Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna; and Benjamin Ward, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. Credit: Ayham G Youssef/Globale Verantwortung.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate