In 1859, a Swiss citizen, Henri Dunant, arrived in Solferino following a crucial battle in the Second Italian War of Independence. Dunant was so appalled by the carnage – tens of thousands of dead and wounded soldiers – that he organized a civilian initiative to help the sick and injured on both sides. Today, 160 years later, that example – and the rules, norms, and institutions that it advanced – must be reaffirmed.
Dunant’s initiative – bearing the motto Siamo tutti fratelli (we are all brothers) – sowed the seeds of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which inspired the first Geneva Convention in 1864. The subsequent Geneva Conventions constituted the basis for international humanitarian law, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) – established in 2002 and accepted by most of the world’s states – became the principal institution for enforcing it.
Yet the Geneva Conventions and the ICC are constantly being undermined, often in novel ways. In both Syria and Yemen, for example, state and non-state actors alike violate international humanitarian law, not only with alarming regularity, but also with apparent impunity. As Vincent Bernhard, Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross, observed, these are wars “against children, against hospitals, against first-aid workers, against memory, against justice.”
Countless people have simply disappeared, traumatizing families and communities. Generations of children have known nothing but violent conflict. Entire camps in Syria are filled with captured Islamic State fighters and their families, who are often denied due process. To ignore the legal rights of any individual – even one who has allegedly committed serious crimes – is to repudiate the inherent worth of all humans. And to deny children a future because of their parents’ alleged actions is to guarantee a legacy of hatred that will plague societies for decades.
For the last century, my country, Jordan, has faced the consequences of at least one war each decade. And, despite our scarce water and relative poverty, we host millions of refugees from multiple conflicts. Too often, however, governments justify their failure to uphold international humanitarian law and human rights in terms of the need to guarantee physical security.
That is a false dichotomy. As United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein put it before stepping down last year, “When these leaders undermine human rights, and human rights law […] they are eroding the structures which can ensure the safety of their people – pitching their societies backwards into violence, destruction, exploitation, and disaster.”
Support for the Geneva Conventions is vital not only to how wars are fought, but also to how they end. And in today’s protracted conflicts, ensuring the delivery of humanitarian assistance and protection – and the accountability of leaders – is more important than ever.
To this end, a new Principle of Humanity should be placed at the center of national and international policymaking. The internationally recognized “Responsibility to Protect” should be augmented by the “Responsibility to Respect,” which would oblige governments to pursuit social justice beyond the scope of the immediate conflict.
But applying the Principle of Humanity requires an approach that incorporates both public and nongovernmental actors, from conflict-resolution specialists to business leaders and private citizens. And it means that apathy is not an option: we must all demand justice. We cannot tacitly condone atrocities, just because they seem isolated from our daily lives.
Mahatma Gandhi put it best: “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others.” An attack on one, we must recognize, is an attack on all. And to end the cycle of violence in which too many countries are entrenched requires laying the foundations for a world characterized by respect for life, for the environment, and for future generations.
As we celebrate the anniversaries of the Treaty of Versailles and the Geneva Convention of 1949 this year, we must recognize that these events are not ends in themselves. Commemoration is not a declaration of victory, but rather an opportunity to recommit to upholding the rights and respecting the dignity of all people.
We still have a long way to go. In too many places, the twenty-first century so far has been a “dark night of the soul” for humanity. It is up to all of us to turn on the lights by recognizing the old and simple truth: Siamo tutti fratelli – we are all brothers (and sisters).
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