There are rules during wartime, and the rules are simple: Don’t target medical facilities. Don’t harm doctors and medical workers. Don’t harm civilians, including aid workers. They’re outlined in a raft of domestic and international laws. This includes the Geneva Conventions, a treaty ratified by 196 nations after World War II, and several U.N. Security Council and U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions.
Yet aid workers are operating in environments that are increasingly hostile to them, says Anaïde L. Nahikian, who runs Harvard’s Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action. In October 2015, U.S. planes bombed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42. In July, South Sudanese soldiers brutally gang-raped foreign aid workers. And the number of reported kidnappings of aid workers each year quadrupled to 121 from 2002 to 2014.
In the past few years, almost no one has been arrested or jailed for these atrocities or prosecuted at the International Criminal Court or ad hoc U.N. tribunals. The message to violators is that they can act with impunity, says Patricia McIlreavy, vice president of humanitarian policy at InterAction, a coalition of global NGOs. “I don’t know of any punishments that have been meted out,” she says.
“Warring parties today have a license to kill — without consequences or accountability for their actions,” says Shannon Scribner, associate director of humanitarian programs and policy at Oxfam America. “[The world’s] standards no longer carry much weight.”