Gregorio Borgia/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.US presidential candidate Donald Trump recently added international humanitarian law to his growing list of people, places, and things he disdains and thinks America would be better off without – including the entire Muslim-American population, all women who undergo abortions, and a diverse range of public figures from Heidi Klum to Arianna Huffington. On the law of armed conflict, he stated, “The problem is we have the Geneva conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so [US] soldiers are afraid to fight.” These words are no surprise coming from the man who promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” at a Republican debate back in February.
Like so many of Trump’s statements, beyond the initial ludicrousness and falsehood, there is a lot of dangerous thinking – and potential for dangerous action – behind these provocations. But with his racist, misogynistic ideologies, Trump is far too easy a target for yet another social justice-minded, New York writer to simply tackle. So this piece is not about Trump. Rather, it is about the significance of humanitarian law, and its relevance for some of the world’s most marginalized and repeatedly victimized populations, one of which – Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria – I will shed light on in what follows. But first and foremost, thank you, Mr. Trump, for bringing this important issue under the political spotlight.
The notion that US soldiers are “afraid to fight” must be refuted. The supposedly ‘timid’ US military has been responsible for an estimated 10-15 million deaths worldwide since World War II’s end. The law of armed conflict has not slowed down global catastrophe from war, nor has it stymied the US’s military might. The Geneva Conventions, though often ignored by many nations since their inception in 1864, contain essential ideals for international law, and critical protections for civilians in conflict zones. Protocol I, Article 54, for example, includes key protections such as, “Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited” and, “It is prohibited to…destroy…objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as…drinking water installations”.
The extremist goals of Donald Trump and his supporters who seek to abolish such laws reflect a deeply problematic ideology, in which guilt by association or guilt due to geographic proximity to conflict is a celebrated norm. Refugees displaced and victimized by the Islamic State are conflated with the terrorists of the Islamic State, Mexican victims of drug cartel violence are deemed interchangeable with the cartel operators themselves, and so on.
Dismantling humanitarian law is bound to breed more violence, more violations, and more suffering for the world’s most vulnerable.
Though humanitarian law is imperfect, this body of law needs to be revised, strengthened, and protected—not shrunk, destroyed, or viewed as “the problem.” One group knows too well the experience of victimization by violations of humanitarian law, and they are a group that, over the past five years, has been displaced en masse for the second time in world history. In 1948, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, becoming refugees. Children of these refugees, and their children’s children, are now legally classified as refugees themselves, and 560,000 of these refugees resided in Syria prior to the civil war. Over 110,000 of them have fled the combined violence of the Islamic State and the Assad regime in the past five years, while another 450,000 have been internally displaced. Many are making dangerous journeys now all too familiar to the western public – journeys in unsafe, flimsy boats across the Mediterranean to make it to Greece to achieve a better life – a safer, less brutal life – within the borders of EU nations.
As of March 2016, Abeer al Hosary, a mother of three, was forced to flee Syria, and was stranded on the Greece-Macedonia border, praying that entry into the EU would soon be possible. Following the EU-Turkey deal, which mandates that refugees attempting to enter the EU from Greece by way of Turkey must now be deported back to Turkey, it does not seem that Abeer’s dream of safety in Europe – nor the dreams of countless others like her – will become reality. Palestinian refugee-Syrians, refugees yet again, are only eligible for “temporary protection” in Turkey, as opposed to the full asylum status that they could seek in the EU.
Members of this group, one of many vulnerable refugee groups, are living reminders of the undeniable significance of humanitarian law. Palestinian refugees regularly suffer from violations of the Geneva Conventions in Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, and beyond. The 2014 war on Gaza which resulted in 1,462 civilian deaths and seemingly deliberate destruction of water and electricity infrastructure, and the recent killing by an Israel Defense Forces soldier of an unarmed, wounded Palestinian suspect lying on the ground (and numerous other killings like this), are just a few examples of blatant humanitarian law violations. In Syria, violations of humanitarian law, including chemical weapon attacks on civilians, have significantly contributed to displacement. These attacks are violations of the very laws that certain US presidential candidates are framing as “the problem.”
Humanitarian law could certainly stand for improvement. It needs to be better equipped to deal with protracted conflict that fluctuates unexpectedly in intensity, as in Gaza and the West Bank. Now, sadly, it seems Syria has become a protracted conflict – not a short-term burst of violence – as well. Humanitarian law also needs to be pushed into meaningful dialogue with other bodies of international law, such as environmental, criminal, and human rights legal frameworks. Facilitating these dialogues through intergovernmental development and legislation will be time consuming, and much of the work may even be futile. But one thing is certain—dismantling humanitarian law is bound to breed more violence, more violations, and more suffering for the world’s most vulnerable. It also will not serve the US, which already has ghosts to deal with regarding accusations of Geneva Convention violations during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a troubling track record on international criminal law, given that the US is not a party to the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute.
Though efforts to strengthen the protection of humanitarian law must be global, the US could make major strides domestically by grappling with its historically vexed relationship with humanitarian law, and by respecting it without question going forward. Though this issue transcends any one presidential campaign… preventing Donald Trump from getting anywhere near the presidency might also be a good way to protect humanitarian law.
And, though I promised this wasn’t an article about the US presidential election, I will conclude by (not so) subtly quoting a certain Brooklyn-born US senator from Vermont, who has courageously stated, “We will not turn our backs on the refugees who are fleeing Syria and Afghanistan. We will do what we do best and that is be Americans—fighting racism, fighting xenophobia, fighting fear.” Sanders’ attitude is precisely the kind of attitude that will promote maximum safety and security for marginalized people in the US and abroad. This kind of approach is compatible with ushering in a new era in US policy. This could be an era in which international humanitarian law (inextricably intertwined with a respect for human rights and, “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” as Article 54 states), would be respected to the fullest extent possible.