The Failure of Humanitarian Law to Protect Civilians from Armed Conflicts
WHEN I WAS A BOY, my friends and I would spend hours playing with small plastic soldiers—entire armies with green and brown uniforms, men carrying rifles and grenades, bazookas and pistols. We got lost for hours in our make-believe wars, filling in the missing soundtrack with our own “Boom!” and “Gotcha, you’re dead” and the “rat-tat-tat” of machine gun fire.
It was great fun, but it masked a fundamental truth about modern warfare. In our play, soldiers only killed other soldiers. They didn’t shoot unarmed civilians, bomb schools, or destroy hospitals. We had no toy jets scattering napalm on rural villages, no planes dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhoods. Our soldiers never sexually assaulted anyone, nor did they abduct children to fight alongside them. Among all our plastic figurines, there was no traumatized child covered with ash and blood, stunned eyes revealing the true horror of war.
Civilians have always paid a heavy price in times of war. In World War I, millions of people who were not part of the fighting lost their lives; they died in the many horrible ways that unarmed people die during war: from bullets, artillery, poison gas, starvation, and disease (landmines had not yet been widely adopted). Numerically, civilians accounted for somewhat less than half of the 17 million deaths caused by that terrible conflict.
In wars fought since then, a shift has occurred, with civilians now comprising the majority of modern warfare’s casualties. The precise ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in contemporary wars, often cited as 9:1, is still a point of debate. However, measuring the impact of armed conflict solely in terms of direct war-related deaths grossly underestimates how war affects the lives of civilians. It doesn’t include mortality caused by the depletion of food supplies, the destruction of clinics and hospitals, and the killing of medical personnel. Nor does it include the devastating impact of rape, which is both a weapon and spoil of war; the widespread use of abduction and torture to spread fear and silence opposition; the forced recruitment of children by armed groups; or the mass displacement of populations, both internally and as refugees in other countries.
In response to the horrific killing of civilians in World War II, in 1949 the Fourth Geneva Convention was crafted to protect civilians in times of armed conflict (the first three Geneva Conventions addressed the protection of soldiers injured or captured during war). The Fourth Convention set out specific rules of war prohibiting the targeting of non-combatants. However, the Geneva Conventions applied only to wars between countries, not to internal conflicts such as civil wars, which comprise the majority of contemporary armed conflicts. To address this gap, an additional protocol was adopted in 1977 that extended the protections of the Fourth Convention to civilians in any context of conflict. Add to these widely ratified agreements two others: the UN Convention on Genocide (1951), and the UN Convention Against Torture (1994), and you’ve got a fairly comprehensive set of international agreements aimed at protecting civilians from organized violence.
There’s just one problem.
Since the establishment of these accords and their ratification by a large majority of the world’s nations, we’ve witnessed genocides in Guatemala, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan. Civilians have been targeted on a massive scale in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Viet Nam, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and on and on. Armed groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Boko Haram seem utterly uninterested in international protocols on the protection of civilians; indeed, they routinely publicize their abuse and killing of unarmed men, women, and children. Torture of civilians is currently practiced in more than 120 countries, many of which have signed or ratified the Convention Against Torture.
In a recent study on the effectiveness of international humanitarian laws aimed at protecting civilians in times of war, Margrit Busman and Gerald Schneider reached the sobering conclusion that such laws are of “doubtful effectiveness,” and confirmed the popular perception that despotic leaders and rebel or non-state actors routinely ignore them. Even democratic states have shown a periodic disregard for humanitarian law; American forces’ detention, abuse, and killing of Iraqi civilians following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein have been well documented, as has Israel’s acceptance of high numbers of civilian “collateral” deaths in its retaliatory strikes against Palestinians. Prosecution for war crimes in the International Criminal Court may satisfy a popular desire for retributive justice (punishment), but the threat of indictment by the ICC has shown little capacity to deter military actions against civilians. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Bashar al-Assad have shown the slightest hesitation to order lethal attacks against unarmed Syrians, where the death toll is fast approaching a half million.
The various international accords aimed at protecting civilians from armed conflict represent important steps on the path to creating a more humane world. At present, however, they are more aspirational than impactful. Undoubtedly, they have contributed to an evolving discourse in the United States and elsewhere regarding the unacceptability of harming civilians during times of war. That discourse is evident in the increasingly stringent rules of engagement for American troops in Afghanistan (in place since 2009) designed to minimize harm to Afghan civilians. Social media have documented with raw immediacy the devastation of armed conflict, and may ultimately enhance the effectiveness of international accords by strengthening popular demands for greater adherence to them.
As we watch the smoke rise from the ashes of eastern Aleppo, where Russian planes and pro-Assad forces have killed or displaced much of the urban population, perhaps we might leave aside pious assertions of “Never again” as have been uttered in the wake of previous atrocities. A more useful response would be to explore methods of giving greater teeth to the laws and agreements to which nations are bound, and acknowledge that progress on this path will likely be uncertain and frustratingly slow. Perhaps we may take some comfort in Steven Pinker’s conclusion in The Better Angels of our Nature that violence in human societies is steadily declining. In fact, Pinker suggests that we are presently living in the most peaceful era in human history. It is a hopeful view, but one that surely offers little solace to the 60 million people currently displaced by the brutality of war.
Kenneth E. Miller is a researcher at War Child Holland, and the author of War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience (Larson Publications, 2016).