Recovering Humanitarian Law

MADRID – Even amid the chaos and catastrophes caused by war, there are internationally recognized limits on combatants’ behavior. And yet recent deliberate attacks on refugee camps and hospitals, in Syria and elsewhere, demonstrate an absolute disdain for basic humanitarian norms. Indeed, such behavior – which also includes obstruction of humanitarian aid and attacks on medical and humanitarian personnel – has become all too common.

Today, the United Nations estimates that approximately 125 million people are in need of humanitarian aid – a number that increases every year. More than 60 million people – half of them children – are currently displaced as a result of violence or conflict. In the past decade alone, the cost of humanitarian aid has increased 600%, making it practically unsustainable.

With this concern in mind, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has convened a World Humanitarian Summit, the first in the UN’s 60-year history. The meetings and talks taking place in Istanbul on May 23-24 will address the five core items comprising the Agenda for Humanity: preventing and ending conflicts; defending humanitarian norms; reducing displacement, protecting women and girls, and providing education in conflict zones; reinforcing national and local capacities to provide aid; and increasing investment in human development.

While the needs caused by natural disasters (some related to climate change) or epidemics are pressing, those related to conflicts are no less urgent. Given the length and the magnitude of many of today’s conflicts – in which great powers are frequently involved – a bold and comprehensive international commitment is urgently needed for prevention and humanitarian response.