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Almost 70 years ago, with Europe still lying in ruins, a set of ‘rules’ – the Geneva Conventions – were agreed to govern warfare. Chief among them was the commitment that civilians would not be deliberately targeted.
The devastation in Eastern Ghouta is a reminder that powerful countries are willing to brush these rules aside, content that there will be no repercussions for doing so.
What is happening today in Ghouta breaches every aspect of International Humanitarian Law. Hospitals, schools, houses and even funerals have been hit by airstrikes. For civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta nowhere is safe and little help is coming.
South of Syria, seven million people in Yemen are at risk of famine due to a blockade that has restricted food imports. This blockade is the result of a political decision to starve a civilian population. It is illegal, not to mention reprehensible.
Forced starvation is an example of how civilians are targeted during conflict. Airstrikes make the news but the slow suffering of people denied food – and the outbreak of disease which follows – often goes less noticed. Using food as a weapon of war is equal to using rockets and guns. The intent is the same, as is the outcome.
The same is true of sexual violence, which is used against civilians to humiliate and destroy. In countries such as South Sudan, civilians are targeted at all three levels: murder, rape and starvation. Each is being used as a direct military tactic.
In these incidents, the perpetrators are not rogue terror groups but states. In the case of Syria and Yemen, the actions are being carried out by some of the most powerful states on Earth. Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK and the USA are all involved, either directly or through supplying weapons and political cover.
The reality is that states are willing to disregard international law and kill large numbers of civilians free from repercussions.
The UN Security Council – a body charged with maintaining world peace but comprised of the world’s largest arms dealers – is hopelessly politicised and not fit for purpose. Most major conflicts in the world involve at least one member of the UN Security Council, so how can it be neutral?
A body established to guarantee security for the world has become a geo-political poker table, with powerful states trading the lives of civilians in the name of strategic interests.
The process often descends into farce. Blocking a resolution to establish a 30 day ceasefire for humanitarian access into Ghouta, Russia described reports of heavy civilian casualties as “mass psychosis”.
That a member of the UN Security Council can make such statements highlights how ineffective the body is. There is an urgent need to establish new mechanisms to document war crimes and hold the perpetrators to account.
This culpability must extend to those in western capitals who approve arms deals worth billions to countries involved in mass murder. The ministers and officials who sign off on these sales cannot claim ignorance. They are complicit and they should be held to account.
Without reshaping our international structures, we are doomed to repeat the horrors we have seen in Ghouta over recent days. Impunity and the paralysis of the UN Security Council clears the path for the next atrocity.
The only way to stop this cycle is to ensure there are repercussions for people who carry out these crimes, as well as for those who arm or provide political cover for them.
The League of Nations was created to prevent a repeat of the devastation of World War I. It failed when it was unable to prevent Europe’s slow descent into chaos in the 1930s.
When World War II ended, the United Nations was established to replace the League of Nations. It was to succeed where its predecessor failed. For 70 years, the United Nations has attempted to ensure that the horrors of World War II are not repeated.
Without urgent reform, the United Nations runs the risk of becoming to the 21st century what the League of Nations was to the 20th: toothless, powerless and, ultimately, irrelevant.
Éamonn Meehan is Executive Director of Trócaire.