WAR ON TERROR IGNORES INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW
By Morten Rostrup
Morten Rostrup is international council president of Medicins sans
Frontieres (MSF), the organization awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
BRUSSELS -- A global ''war on terror'' was quickly announced after
the massacres took place in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 last year.
In a few weeks the U.S. government managed to create a worldwide alliance
to fight terrorism, and this ''new war'' became the main focus for the
time to come. The consequences of this war, however, went far beyond toppling
the Taliban regime and hunting down Al Qaeda terrorists.
One obvious consequence of the U.S.-led attack on ''terrorists'' has been
the effective green light given to other governments and regimes engaged
in their own domestic ''counter-terrorist'' actions, particularly where
these actions relate to Muslim minorities. The political logic of the
war on terror seems to imply that because the terrorists do not, by definition,
respect international conventions, anti-terrorist operations may therefore
have a freer hand.
A culture of near-total impunity has developed in which transgressions
of international humanitarian law are overlooked by Western governments
and the media, as long as they are carried out by ''allies.''
We noted with equal dismay the lack of respect of international humanitarian
law when the Israeli military were preventing the delivery of humanitarian
assistance and evacuation of wounded during their campaign in the Jenin
refugee camp earlier this year. When allies in the war on terror fail
to uphold international humanitarian law and nothing is said about it,
what lessons are being absorbed by the terrorists and regimes engaging
in civil wars?
International humanitarian law was created to protect and assist noncombatants
in times of war and crisis, yet despite being invoked rhetorically by
all sides, respect for its basic provisions is under threat -- and now
more than ever.
Medicins sans Frontieres has over the past year witnessed and reported
the plight of war victims, refugees and the displaced in the Mano River
region in West Africa, in Sudan's Western Upper Nile Province and in Angola.
In many contexts round the world, conflicts continue to target civilian
populations, and forcible displacement, massacres, massive exploitation
and hopelessness are the result.
In Angola, for example, both the government and UNITA performed bloody
atrocities against the civilian population, deliberately violating international
humanitarian law, yet the international community has done nothing to
address these violations. Far from being subject to investigations into
its reported war crimes, the Angolan government will next year have a
seat on the U.N. Security Council. The clear message here is that prosecutions
for violations of international humanitarian law clearly do not apply
to the victors.
Instances like the U.S. bombing of the International Committee of the
Red Cross warehouses in Kabul, the dropping of cluster bombs into heavily
populated areas (leaving behind a legacy of unexploded bomblets that indiscriminately
injure civilians), unacceptable damage during the Tora Bora bombing, hidden
under the word ''collateral,'' are violations of international humanitarian
law and must be opposed, irrespective of the cause that is being pursued.
MSF feels also that an independent investigation is warranted into the
possible war crimes carried out by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan,
backed by the Western coalition -- both in Mazar-i-Sharif, where a prison
mutiny was crushed by air strikes killing several hundreds prisoners of
war, and in Kunduz, where hundreds of combatants were massacred last autumn
If an investigation is not pursued, the lack of such action will further
undermine the respect for international humanitarian law and make the
protection of noncombatants much harder.
Civilians' vulnerability has not only increased due to the weakening of
international humanitarian law but also at stake is the independence of
humanitarian action. In the wake of the launch of war on terrorism, there
has been an increasing tendency to subordinate humanitarian action to
political agendas and military strategies. Humanitarian action is more
and more seen as an integral part of an overall strategy. Since the very
beginning the Bush administration has argued that the anti-terrorism campaign
was ''being fought at home and abroad through multiple operations, including
diplomatic, military, financial, investigative, homeland security and
humanitarian actions.'' British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone even
further in speaking of a ''military-humanitarian coalition.''
As an independent humanitarian organization, we are vigorously opposed
to this. Mixing military and so-called humanitarian interventions may
in the end endanger effective aid to civilians. Once the two have been
mixed together, who will be able to tell the difference? How can civilians
trust humanitarian aid to be independent? Our teams in Afghanistan have
time and again the last year observed military personnel from the international
coalition force in civilian clothes with concealed guns, driving civilian
cars. We have also met other special forces in civilian clothes, carrying
guns, who claimed they were on a ''humanitarian mission.''
If armies engaged in the fighting are involved in delivering humanitarian
assistance, it can be regarded by their opponents as an act of war.
Civilians will in the end suffer if humanitarian action is seen as partisan,
and aid and aid workers can easily be targeted. Humanitarian aid promotes
a concern for humanity and dignity in times of violence. This relies on
a respect for the impartiality of aid agencies and their independence
from the pursuit of military causes. This is a precondition for being
able to give aid solely based on needs. The politicized and militarized
''humanitarian'' concept now increasingly emerging is not what has been
described in the Geneva conventions where humanitarian action is required
to be neutral, independent and impartial.
We have also observed, with great concern, the reduction in media space
and attention to those foreign stories that do not have a direct link
to the war on terror.
Even before September 2001 we admittedly struggled to convince media of
the importance of covering stories outside their nations' direct geopolitical
sphere of influence. International attention to humanitarian issues was
always notoriously fickle and patchy. But at least sometimes we achieved
success, and the world would heed the suffering of people in places such
as Africa. It is now nearly nonexistent, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon
media, unless a link can be made to the war on terror. Despite witnessing
the worst mortality and malnutrition rates for years in Angola in spring
2002, for example, media coverage of this situation was extremely difficult
to attain, as is coverage of the human cost of the continuing conflict
in Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Clearly, resources and focus
In stark contrast to the crassly insufficient level of Western political
and financial commitment to global deprivation, it was telling to observe
after Sept. 11 that it was entirely possible within a matter of weeks
to mobilize a worldwide political coalition and billions and billions
of dollars to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban because they were considered
a common threat. Lack of financial resources was not an issue -- there
was only the question of political will.
(c) 2002, Nobel Laureates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/18/02)
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