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The Worst Precedent Period Ever Period: Law Regarding Bombing Hospitals and Aid Workers

By Victoria Garcia

As one doctor in Syria noted, “Everybody knows that hospitals are the safest place in the world in a time of war, but in Syria they are the riskiest place.” Syria’s conflict shows that customs of war prohibiting attacks on humanitarian relief are disintegrating. On May 2, 2016, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed a resolution condemning attacks on humanitarian aid workers and voted to end impunity for such crimes. However, on September 20, 2016, Russian and Syrian forces allegedly targeted and bombed a humanitarian aid convoy, killing 21 people, including the International Red Crescent Syria Director Omar Barakat. Russia’s involvement in the bombing indicates that humanitarian aid protection is faltering. The disintegration of such protection is a severe threat to international security because it contributes to the refugee crisis and sets a dangerous precedent affecting future wars.

The 1864 Geneva Conventions aimed to protect international humanitarian workers. The treaty specified protection for ambulances, military hospitals, medical personnel, citizens assisting the wounded, and any medical personnel, equipment, and facilities with the symbol of a red cross on a white background. Although the 1864 Convention was established during World War II, the treaty was routinely violated, and, subsequently, the international community drafted the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocols to update legal obligations for states, including imposing legal sanctions against violators. Most importantly, the Geneva Conventions once again provided explicit instructions to States in conflict—they cannot attack humanitarian workers.

The Convention’s protection for humanitarian workers has nearly vanished in Syria’s conflict. In 2015 alone, Syria suffered an estimated 94 attacks on 67 hospitals. The Assad Government is not the only regime accused of targeting humanitarian relief, but after the September 20 envoy attack, it is the one that the U.K. and France have specifically called for a war crimes investigation. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated, “Hospitals have been targeted with such frequency and precision that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this must be a deliberate policy. . . .” The world’s eyes are on Syria, and without accountability, targeting relief efforts will only proliferate the refugee crisis and show potential perpetrators violations will go unchallenged.

The UN considers Syria a Level 3 humanitarian crisis, meaning it is a most severe, large-scale humanitarian crisis. Millions of people are without food, medicine, or water, and it appears the convoys delivering aid are being specifically targeted. These factors cause individuals suffering from insufficient resources to leave the country as refugees, seeking out countries where they can receive assistance. To date, the refugee crisis has seen an estimated 12 million people displaced. Receiving States’ economies and resources are then pressured. Economic and resource pressure can potentially spur additional conflicts.

Another international security concern is the potential solution to the humanitarian targeting problem—militarized aid. Militarized aid is aid accompanied by armed bodyguards to protect the convoy. While armed aid can help protect humanitarian personnel, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) noted that there are serious drawbacks, including restricted access and decreased trust with the public.  Not only does the ICRC worry that militarized aid may blur the lines between aid assistance and military operations, the convoy strikes in Syria are air strikes, which require more security than bodyguards with rifles, and may create additional violence. Attacks on humanitarian workers and materials affect individuals in the aid convoys, expecting the convoy’s resources, and to the greater international community that there are no consequences for such heinous acts.

Attacks on humanitarian relief is a critical concern for U.S. security and the international community’s security. As President of the International Committee of the Red Cross stated in 2014, “Because of the risks involved, the number of organizations able, allowed or willing to work in conflict environments have shrunk dramatically over the last decade. This means that the calls for humanitarian action are ever less likely to be answered, the dire needs of so many unmet.” Targeting hospitals and humanitarian aid services not only breaches the 1949 Geneva Convention, but lacking accountability also sets a dangerous precedent affecting future wars, and potentially creating future wars.


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