Inhumanity unlimited: should citizens acquiesce or object?

October 23, 2019
Norah Niland

War-related inhumanity is not new. But it is now so pervasive 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. Changes in the geopolitical order have marginalised multilateralism, the rule of law and inclusive and accountable governance. At the same time, globalisation prioritises profits over the well-being of the planet and the 7.7 billion people who inhabit it.

This article argues that harm and suffering cannot be written off as haphazard ‘collateral damage’, an Orwellian euphemism that obscures the catastrophic and traumatic toll of today’s armed conflicts. Faced with the deaths of Syrian, Somali, Sudanese, Sri Lankan and other civilians trapped in war zones, we can engage productively and challenge the inhumanity conducted in our name.

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 and manufactured famines have been employed by colonial governments and oppressive regimes to strengthen their hold on subject peoples. History is strewn with episodes of ruthless brutality, from Pol Pot’s killing fields in the 1970s to the Rwandan genocide.

If we do not avert our gaze, we are daily witnesses to inhumanity. Starve-or-surrender policies in Syria have rightly received extensive media coverage, and it is difficult to ignore the deliberate destruction of infrastructure and other assets in Yemen, where a blockade and bombing campaign by the Saudi-led coalition has put food beyond the reach of millions. The number of people facing life-threatening dangers is increasing, 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 against ‘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 some 71 million people uprooted in mid-2019.  

Increasingly, affected civilians are concentrated in urban environments where assets and infrastructure indispensable for survival are often deliberately targeted. Cities in Syria have been besieged and hunger weaponised in Yemen; in Somalia and South Sudan, war, violence, poor governance and drought have combined to put millions at risk.

The deliberate, strategic and routine destruction of hospitals and other health facilities is increasingly commonplace. Four of the five Permanent Members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) have been implicated in attacks on hospitals in Syria and Yemen. US airstrikes killed 42 patients and medical staff and 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 12-hour period in May this year. No less disturbing is the unresolved fate of some 60,000 women and children as Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ was corralled in north-east Syria a few months ago. On the US–Mexico border, young children have been separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy. Thousands of desperate migrants and asylum-seekers have drowned crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety and refuge.

Time to act?

This year is the twentieth anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1265, which launched the Council’s Protection of Civilians agenda. It’s also the 70th anniversary of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions.

The development of treaties and basic standards designed to uphold fundamental rights and the dignity of crisis-affected people should be acknowledged and honoured. 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.

Enhancing the protection of war-affected communities implies greater attention to Common Article 1 (CA1) of the Geneva Conventions. Unlike many legal texts, CA1 is straightforward: it clearly stipulates that state signatories have an obligation to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances. It provides an 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 war zones. Examples include the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which came into force in 2014, and which has led to court cases focused on ensuring that 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 challenging policies that are detrimental to the planet or its inhabitants. Examples include efforts concerned with gender inequality, the warming climate or the successful campaign to ban landmines.

Given the nature of our inter-dependent and interlocking world, CA1 makes clear that eliminating or inhibiting harm to civilians is everyone’s business. In its 70th year, CA1 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’.

Norah Niland is a long-time aid worker and human rights activist. She is a co-founder and member of the International Executive Committee of United Against Inhumanity (UAI). It was launched after consultation with a broad range of individuals and groups in different parts of the world. This led to its focus on war-related atrocity and erosion of the asylum system. UAI’s Call to Action can be accessed here:


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