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Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity

Even wars have limits: minimizing human suffering and protecting civilians require strengthened compliance with international law.


O ver the past 150 years and in the past two decades in particular, we have invested considerable effort and political will in strengthening the international legal frameworks governing the rules of war, promoting the protection of civilians, restricting the use and transfer of certain arms and ammunition, setting up human rights monitoring mechanisms and establishing courts to address the most serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Human rights advocacy and the protection of civilians are now a universal affair. Yet, our global landscape is still blighted with the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for international human rights and humanitarian law. Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately injured and killed. Air strikes rip families apart. Women and girls are abused and sold as sexual slaves. Populations in besieged areas are deliberately starved, intimidated and deprived of essential goods for years.Journalists are detained or killed. Schools, hospitals and places of worship are bombed with alarming frequency and at alarming levels. Monuments that have stood as emblems of culture and civilization for millenniums are deliberately reduced to rubble. The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits. 

U rban areas have become death traps for thousands of civilians. Air strikes labelled as “surgical” end up causing indiscriminate casualties and destruction. An appalling 92 per cent of people killed or injured by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. Cluster munitions continue to maim, kill and devastate even years after hostilities are over, with children making up half of those killed and injured. In 2014, 80 per cent of recorded landmine and explosive remnant of war casualties were civilian, with an incidence rate of 10 casualties per day. Humanitarian and health-care workers are kidnapped and killed and medical facilities and ambulances looted and destroyed as a tactic of warfare. The denial and deliberate obstruction of access for humanitarian relief operations only exacerbates death, suffering and vulnerabilities. People continue to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, ill-treated and tortured, often without safeguards or access to justice and effective remedies. All this violence is directly fuelled by irresponsible and illicit arms transfers. The result is an indictment of our common humanity: people fleeing the horrors of war and abuse across seas and deserts, often in dehumanizing conditions and, in many cases, without any prospect of return. At the end of 2014, almost 60 million people were forcibly displaced, either within their country or across borders.

F louting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious, creating further risks that their application will be reinterpreted and blurred. The failure to demand and promote respect for our shared norms, enforce the law and support or cooperate with national and international monitoring and accountability mechanisms contributes to the erosion of the rule of law and brings about great human suffering. When States disrespect or undermine international humanitarian and human rights law, including through expansive interpretations, other States and non-State actors regard it as an invitation to do the same. A global society without a common adherence to rules and norms surely cannot be our goal. Indifference and inertia cannot be our mantra. We can, and we must, do better.

M ember States must seize the opportunity of the World Humanitarian Summit to recommit to protecting civilians and the human rights of all by respecting the rules that they have already agreed upon. Ensuring the centrality of p rotection and preserving the humanity and dignity of affected people in all circumstances must drive our individual and collective action. Our commitment, strategies, activities and resources must be geared towards preserving the safety, physical integrity and dignity of affected people. We can start by taking action to ensure humanitarian access, identify and speak out about violations, improve compliance and accountability and affirm the norms that safeguard our humanity.

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