The recent airstrike on a camp for Syrians displaced from their homes is the latest in a long line of tragedies resulting from the disregard that certain parties to conflict hold for international humanitarian law. The UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, the UN high commissioner for human rights, the French foreign ministry, the White House and many others have all spoken out against this horrific attack, yet frustrations abound with the inability of the international community to stop them from happening.
This frustration has prompted the withdrawal of the highly respected Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of the integral cogs in the humanitarian system, from participation in the first world humanitarian summit, due to take place in Istanbul this month. In announcing their withdrawal, MSF said: “We no longer have any hope that the summit will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.”
With attacks on medical facilities continuing, MSF’s anger is widely shared. But the cross-party international development committee believes that the summit can and must bring about action to uphold the law. First and foremost is action on international humanitarian law. As the report points out, the problem is not the absence of binding laws, but the persistent failure to comply with or enforce them. In his pre-summit report, the UN secretary general refers to the flouting of law as “contagious” – when states disrespect the basic rules governing the conduct of war, they invite others to do the same.