By Udo Jude Ilo
30 November 2023
Many countries have failed to live up to their commitments to protect civilians because international humanitarian law is only as good as its implementation.
If the rules of war had been followed, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups would not have entered Israel on Oct. 7 and killed hundreds of civilians before taking hostage more than 200 others. Similarly, if Israel had taken better precautions in its military response, the deaths of more than 15,000 people and the destruction of critical infrastructure could have been avoided.
The tragedy unfolding in Israel and Gaza is marked by a severe lack of adherence to international humanitarian law, or IHL. Unfortunately, this is not the only place we see devastating civilian harm and disregard for IHL. In Ukraine, Russian troops continue to carry out indiscriminate attacks. In Sudan, unlawful killing of civilians by the Rapid Response Forces and the Sudan Armed Forces continues to be reported, while in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, civilians continue to face atrocities despite the cessation of hostilities signed a year ago.
The terrible truth is that many countries have failed to live up to their commitments to protect civilians because IHL is only as good as its implementation. IHL is more than a set of rules signed by states — it’s a pact to do everything possible to protect the lives of civilians in armed conflict.
IHL is inspired by considerations of humanity and the mitigation of human suffering, primarily by distinguishing between civilians and combatants, and restricting and regulating the means and methods of warfare — including through proportionality.
However, in recent years, the core principles of IHL have been flouted by many. This is happening even by countries that are signatories of the four Geneva Conventions and have the obligation to uphold international law.
Today, we see countries that came together at the end of the First and Second World Wars to build a stable and secure world undermining the same instruments created to serve that purpose. Western countries claiming to be a beacon for human rights and preaching right from wrong to the rest of the world can be conveniently silent — or even stand in violation of the exact rights they claim to stand for.
The protection of civilians in armed conflict and adherence to IHL should never be compromised, yet violations of the rules of war have become too frequent, and with little to no accountability. Countries may turn a blind eye to the violations of warring parties depending on their alliances, strategic interests, and even the identities of the opposing sides. This selective application of IHL is dangerously undermining the tools created to protect civilians and sends the message that some lives are worth more than others.
We cannot allow politics to dictate the application of IHL. This has been exemplified by Russia heading calls for a cease-fire in Gaza while carrying out airstrikes in Ukraine, and, on the other hand, countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and throughout the European Union abstaining from calling for a cease-fire while they adamantly criticized Russia’s violations of IHL in Ukraine. Countries must recommit to their obligations and hold to account any party to a conflict that violates the rules of war. This is in the interest of global stability and justice. This is also their only way to remain trusted leaders on the international stage.
No military objective and sovereignty argument, including the right of self-defense, can justify disregarding the obligations that warring parties and third states must uphold. In 2000, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, passed a judgment that categorically rejected reciprocity as a justification for violations of IHL, affirming that “the defining characteristic of modern international humanitarian law is instead the obligation to uphold key tenets of this body of law regardless of the conduct of enemy combatants.” This point is crucial with the indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.
Preserving IHL must remain a collective endeavor. Voices of civil society are incredibly important in times of armed conflict to document harm done to civilians and call for responsible actors to be held accountable. Recently, we have seen hundreds of thousands taking to the streets worldwide calling for a cease-fire in Gaza despite the reluctance of their governments. Public outrage alone may not suffice, but it can place political pressure on elected officials to fulfill their roles as standard bearers of democratic and human values and justice.
Similarly, the international business community, which has also played an important role in upholding fundamental rights and protection of vulnerable groups, should lend their voices to the protection of civilians in conflict and the respect of international law.
While politics should stay out of IHL, there needs to be a political will from countries to fully embrace their international obligations during armed hostilities. Double standards and “a la carte” applications of IHL are harming the people our countries have a duty to protect while eroding public confidence in global institutions and instruments. This will not only have a lasting impact on conflict-stricken populations, but also on the stability and future of our world order.
This article can also be read at its source page on Devex. The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex’s editorial views.
Udo Jude Ilo serves as interim executive director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. He joined CIVIC in April 2022 as the senior director for advocacy