Inhumanity Unlimited – should citizens acquiesce or object?

War-related inhumanity is not new. But, nowadays, it is so pervasive that the non-stop diet of alarming headlines and gruesome images means that many of us prefer to focus on more digestible news. As a result, the relationship between how we live our lives and the policies that spell death and destruction for fellow human beings is not readily apparent. Global War on Terror (GWOT) and related narratives tend to obscure changes in the geo-political order that have marginalised multilateralism, the rule of law as well as inclusive and accountable governance. At the same time, the world is made safe for neo-liberal agendas and globalisation processes that prioritise profits over the well-being of the planet and the 7.7 billion people who inhabit it.

This article argues that the harm and suffering endured by many cannot be written off as haphazard “collateral damage”, an Orwellian euphemism that obscures the catastrophic and traumatic toll of today’s armed conflicts. It also argues that individuals who are indignant or even a little bit concerned about the slaughter of Syrian, Somali, Sudanese, Sri Lankan or other civilians trapped in war zones from Afghanistan to Yemen can engage productively. They can take advantage of new as well as old tools that enable citizens everywhere to challenge inhumanity conducted in our name and/or with our tax revenue. It could well be argued that it is immoral not to do so.

Inhumanity in the 21st century: a humanitarian challenge? 

Human beings have a long history of harming and killing each other whether in direct combat or off the battlefield. Sieges or manufactured famine conditions have been employed by colonial masters and oppressive regimes to strengthen their stranglehold on a subject people while demonstrating their disdain for human life. History is strewn with brutal ruthlessness from Pol Pot’s killing fields in the 1970s to Rwanda’s 100 days of death by militias armed with meticulous lists of opponents identified for extinction in 1994. As noted by Primo Levi, in todays’ world, “everyone can know everything about everything”.   

If we do not avert our gaze, we are daily witnesses to inhumanity. Starve-or-surrender policies in Syria have rightly received non-stop media coverage. Similarly, it is difficult to not be aware of the deliberate destruction of infrastructure and other assets essential for survival in Yemen; the Saudi-led coalition has upped the human cost of the war with a blockade and bombing campaign that has put food beyond the reach of millions, while American, European and other arms dealers bank their profits. 

Our limited engagement in addressing the deliberate annihilation of lives and livelihoods in today’s war zones and the routine dehumanisation of people categorised as alien ‘others’ raises questions about our sense of individual and collective responsibility. Such failure is amplified in the context of an interwoven world of growing inequality, unregulated globalisation and diminished support for a rule-based order.  

In recent reflections on famine, war and activism, Mark Duffield notes that rather than seeking to occupy and control territory, today’s armed conflicts are focused on “denying the ability to resist by wantonly destroying critical infrastructure and social capital”; he adds that the deliberate destruction of a society’s economic and welfare system is “tantamount to destroying a peoples’ means of social reproduction.” Duffield argues that neo-liberal agendas and contemporary forms of capitalism maintain and reproduce the inequalities and powerlessness that underpin marginalisation, populism and anti-migrant policies. This, in turn, constitutes a continuum of ‘global war’ and a negation of traditional notions of humanitarianism, in the sense of a shared compassion about issues of mutual concern, not bound by geographical or political borders. 

Whatever the metrics used to determine the scale and scope of today’s inhumanity, the number of people facing life-threatening dangers is on the increase and their precarious situation is, almost invariably, protracted. At the end of 2018, ICRC President Peter Maurer noted that two billion people are affected by “fragility, conflict or violence” and are not adequately protected given “violations of basic laws and principles.” According to UNHCR, one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution with a total of some 70.8 million people uprooted, mid 2019.    

The human cost of armed conflict is most severe when life-saving humanitarian norms are ignored or flouted intentionally as part of an overall strategy to maximise the suffering of civilians. Increasingly, affected civilians are concentrated in urban environments where assets and infrastructure indispensable for survival are often targeted deliberately. In Syria, people in cities such as Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and less well-known locations such as Deir al-Zour, were besieged for lengthy periods. Hunger has also been weaponised in Yemen, a food deficit country long on the verge of famine. In Somalia and South Sudan, war, unrestrained violence, poor governance and drought have combined to put millions at risk as food insecurity takes its toll.   

The deliberate, strategic and routine destruction of hospitals and other health care facilities is now increasingly commonplace even though such atrocities are war crimes. Four of the five Permanent Members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have been implicated in attacks on hospitals in Syria and Yemen.  Multiple US airstrikes killed 42 patients and medical staff and totally destroyed the only surgical hospital in northern Afghanistan in 2015. A recent investigation of recordings of Russian pilots’ radio traffic and plane spotter data found evidence of the bombing of four hospitals in Syria in a twelve-hour period in May this year. It is as if the Global War on Terror rationalisation is perceived as a license to kill without any regard for the law.

No less disturbing, and an indicator of the banality of inhumanity, is the unresolved fate of some 60,000 women and children who ended up in the al-Hawl camp as the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ was corralled in north-east Syria a few months ago.  Apparently 65% of the camp’s residents are less than 18 years of age. Even though these children, some of them orphans, did not have a say about being born into, or taken to, a war zone, Western governments have been reluctant if not hostile to repatriating them. This has remained the case even as Turkey opened a new front in northern Syria in mid October and Kurdish authorities warned that they did not have the capacity to maintain prisons for ISIS personnel or camps for civilians.   Meanwhile, on the US-Mexican border, young children have been separated from their parents as part of the 2018 Trump Administration ‘Zero Tolerance’ Immigration policy. In Europe, untold numbers of desperate migrants and asylum seekers are condemned to death by drowning as part of a cruel and dehumanising deterrence regime that has criminalised search and rescue operations. This has turned the Mediterranean into a vast graveyard for thousands compelled to leave their homes in search of safety and refuge.

Elected and authoritarian governments alike demonstrate, time and again, their contempt for humanitarian norms that, traditionally, were a hallmark of humane, just and civilised society. Nowadays, inhumanity, however merciless and murderous, is in danger of becoming mundane as individuals and society at large dither between indignation and indifference. 

Time to Act?

2019 is the 20th anniversary of UNSC resolution 1265 that launched the Council’s Protection of Civilians agenda. This was provoked, in part, by crises including the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, shortly after the end of the Cold War. This year is also a good time to take stock as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions triggered, in part, by the horror and holocaust of WWII.

The development of treaties and basic standards designed to uphold fundamental rights and the dignity of crisis-affected groups is a positive that should be acknowledged and honoured in a meaningful way. Today, more than ever, this means using all available measures to secure compliance with norms designed to safeguard lives, as well as our collective humanity, in proxy wars and other battle zones, and wherever survivors are in need of safety and asylum.

Wars have laws. The intrinsic value of fundamental, time-tested humanitarian norms is self-evident when they are respected and help secure the safety and dignity of civilians and others affected by armed conflict.  Enhancing the protection of war-affected communities implies greater attention to Common Article 1 (CA1) of the Geneva Conventions. It is of crucial importance and needs to be better utilised. 

Unlike many legal texts, CA1 is straightforward. It stipulates, clearly, that State signatories have an obligation to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances. It provides an important opportunity for concerned citizens and civil society actors everywhere to challenge States to deliver on their responsibilities to counter policies and practices that are at odds with humanitarian precepts.  

The obligation to ensure respect includes measures that prevent or inhibit the destruction of life and means of survival in today’s war zones. Proactive examples include, for instance, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that came into force in 2014. It led to various initiatives, including court cases, focused on ensuring governments abide by their own rules and refrain from selling or providing arms to belligerents when there is a clear risk of serious violations. 

Citizens everywhere have a moral responsibility to secure compliance with international law. All of us can take inspiration from the many initiatives that capitalise on contemporary and other means of mobilisation to take action locally or globally as part of a transnational campaign to challenge policies that are detrimental to the planet or its inhabitants. Obvious examples include efforts concerned with gender inequality, the warming climate, or the successful campaign to ban landmines that, in part, motivated on-going work to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Measures to mobilise support for the basic tenets of international law and other agreements to avoid harm to people trapped in harmful situations will vary depending on local and national circumstances. Given the nature of our inter-dependent and interlocking world, CA1 has added resonance as the vortex of globalisation adds to the turbulence of a changing global order that undermines and sidelines what constitutes our common humanity. CA1 makes clear that eliminating or inhibiting harm to civilians is everyone’s business. In this 70th year since its birth, Common Article 1 is also an opportunity to act on the words of George Steiner who reminds us that we are ‘accomplices to that which leaves us indifferent’.

Photo source: Kafr Nubl surgical hospital, just south of Idlib, is seen after it was put out of service by attacks in early May 2019. The building and an ambulance lie in ruins @UNICEF/Khalil Ashawi