I went to Geneva for the 150th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and to take part in a debate among my peers on the ethics and politics of humanitarian action. The venue was the wonderful new Humanitarium.
Before the debate I walked through the ICRC museum – a sober but inspiring exhibition which I strongly recommend. Looking at the exhibits there I could not resist thinking what might 2013 contribute to it.
What I hadn’t envisaged before our debate began was that the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would also be in Geneva and starting their discussions on Syria just a few hundred metres away from the Humanitarium.
The US-Russian talks deal with the Syria government’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The world has been shocked to see children, women and men gassed – almost 90 years after chemical weapons were banned to prevent tragedies like this ever occurring again. For weeks we have been on the verge of Western military intervention but the negotiators hit the pause button and flew their teams to Geneva.
I’m not saying that the skies turned blue and cloudless, but I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of optimism: perhaps a glimpse of hope for a political solution to the madness of a war which has claimed more than a hundred thousand lives and turned a third of the population of a formerly middle income nation in destitution.
We may yet be disappointed and I don’t believe for a moment that the immediate future for Syrians will be anything other than more suffering. Yet all wars end in negotiations and peace treaties – and this may just be the start of a process to bring the Syrians themselves to negotiate.
My plea now is for the world to seize the moment. The Syrian civil war is the first conflict in decades which has not brought a resolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) condemning its violations of fundamental principles and laws – the very body of humanitarian endeavour which I was in Geneva to celebrate, 150 years after the Red Cross was founded. For the first time in decades the 15 members of the Council have been unable to come together in a Resolution with a simple message to all the parties involved in a civil war: don’t shoot at civilians and the aid workers who are there to help, don’t torture the captured enemy, don’t kill just because you can.
The absence of this message sets a dangerous precedent – not just for Syria but for other conflicts. It tells bad people that it is OK to do terrible things. And it undermines the very International Humanitarian Laws which protect humanity even in the gravest conflicts.
It is vital the UNSC makes amends for this. The world needs to unite behind a Resolution – and the actions which will follow it – not just to get rid of chemical weapons but also to halt the killing of civilians and grant full access to the aid workers bringing relief to the Syrian people.
In short, there needs to be the same energy and ambition now being trained on the issue of chemical weapons brought to bear on the undeniable fact that International Humanitarian Law is being trampled on by the boots of all fighters in Syria. A strong stand to defend this law is paramount for Syria. It is also the best present we can give ICRC for its 150th anniversary.