'Criminal' Acts & the Laws of War

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A Palestinian man carrying a child looks at the destroyed house of Hamas top leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, after it was hit by an overnight Israeli air strike, on July 29, 2014 in Gaza City.
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The rules of war and conflict established in the last century were supposed to keep civilians out of the line of fire. But in our century, it is the civilians who seem to be targeted most of all.

James Rawley, Occupied Palestinian Territory Humanitarian Coordinator for the United Nations Development Group, says there is a "health and humanitarian disaster" playing out in Gaza right now.

"The situation there is very dire," says Rawley. "There is literally no safe place in Gaza."

Rawley says more than 1,700 Palestinians have died in the conflict, including 400 children. About 85 percent of those who have died are civilians. 

"At one point, we were losing a child to the conflict every hour," says Rawley. "We have over 9,000 people that are injured. Places that should be safe—schools, hospitals, homes, and U.N. facilities—have all been damaged or destroyed. Innocent people have been and continue to be killed in them."

According to Rawley, about 490,000 people in Gaza—an area with 1.8 million people that's about the size of the city of Detroit—have been displaced. 

"We just can't keep coping with this type of staggering human displacement," says Rawley, adding that U.N. is "failing" to keep people safe. "It's really absolutely painful for me to report that, once again, yesterday another UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] facility was hit by the Israeli Defense Force. We lost 10 Palestinians, including an UNRWA worker that was just standing inside of the facilities."

In addition to the humanitarian crisis, Rawley says that the U.N. is now concerned about a "health disaster" in Gaza due to the large number of people injured, coupled with the destruction of healthcare facilities. 

"We are really worried," he says. "To be precise, 1/3 of all of the hospitals in Gaza have been hit in attacks. We have six hospitals that are absolutely closed. Primary health facilities and others have been damaged, and we have five medical staff that have been killed, and dozens who have been injured."

About 40 percent of healthcare workers in Gaza cannot carryout their duties because of the violence, says Rawley. 

"We have this big increase and demand for emergency health services and the capacity to respond is much less than it used to be," he says. "We have an almost complete breakdown in water, electricity, and the sanitation infrastructure, which was functioning at a minimal level four weeks ago before this conflict."

Rawley says that diseases that were initially eradicated in the 1940s are now beginning to surface due to the lack of health, water, and sanitation infrastructure. He emphasizes that both parties involved in the conflict—the Israelis and Hamas—are responsible for the current crisis.

"We have denounced Hamas and other de facto forces when they fire missiles or engage in offensive actions close to U.N. facilities, or for that matter any facility where there are civilians," he says. 

Rawley adds that UNRWA has come out with reports denouncing Hamas because it was discovered that there were rockets placed in three closed UNRWA schools. Those rockets were identified by UNRWA staff, though they could not definitively prove that Hamas placed them there, but UNRWA shared that information with the world.

"Yes, Hamas also has its share of blame in this conflict," Rawley says. "But the rockets that are severely damaging and killing our schools, recently, are actually coming from the Israelis."

In over 17 instances, UNRWA has contacted the Israeli government to provide the coordinates of the U.N. facilities in Gaza.

"We update those two or three times a week," says Rawley. "I can say categorically that the government of Israel has the coordinates of every U.N. facility in Gaza. If a mistake is made, it can't because we didn't know it was a U.N. facility. Some other factor was taken into account—I have no idea what that factor could be."

When Do the Geneva Conventions Apply?

While civilian casualties mount in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of civilians are also dead in Syria—a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which was ratified in 1949 and laid out a code of conduct for war, with specific protections for civilians. 

Yet, even President Obama conceded that the U.S. has not stuck the Geneva Conventions in matters of war prisoners. 

"In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong," President Obama said Friday during a press conference. "We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did things that were contrary to our values."

Last week, David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary and president of the International Rescue Committee, told The Takeaway that "the norms and laws that have been built up over centuries to defend civilians during war, sanctified in the Geneva Conventions after the Second World War, are being lost."

Given the current conflicts throughout the Middle East, where does the world actually stand on the Geneva Conventions? Is it time for the world to reaffirm its commit to the Geneva principles?

Diane Amann, professor of international law at the University of Georgia School of Law, weighs in.

"The laws of war, or international humanitarian law, apply across the globe—there really are no special places," says Amann. "Every country in the world has agreed, obliged itself to obey certain laws, with the primary rule being the protection of civilians. But, sometimes in very graphic cases like we're seeing now, they appear to violate those laws."

On the whole, Amann says that it is up individual nations and non-state actors like militia groups to follow the rule of law. However, in cases where the Geneva Conventions are violated, Amann says there are courts, tribunals, and other ways that the international system of law attempts to obtain accountability.

During the outset of World War I 100 years ago, there was no rule book when the great powers used the frightening new war technologies of the 20th century, and the deliberate sinking of the Lusitania, a British cruise liner, by a German submarine in 1915, killed almost 1,200 people. Now a century later, the apparent deliberate downing of a civilian jetliner in a combat zone in Ukraine is calling for the world to remember the rules of war.

Yet, Amann says that the world should expect justice in the case of MH17—at least not anytime soon.

"Law takes a long time," says Amann. "Is it true that we make laws and they're broken? Yes it is. I think at times, if you look at things like the war crimes tribunals in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, at times we do see some measure of accountability. Unfortunately, it's in the long term."

In the end, Amann says it appears that the global community has developed a system to protect people that isn't implemented very well.

"An issue that proceeds the question of war crimes or violations of war—the question of whether you can prevent war or regulate war before it happens," she says. "The mechanism that we've put in place for that is the U.N. Security Council. It has trouble doing that when one if its five permanent members has a stake in what's going on."