Limiting the Brutality of War by Protecting Aid Workers

By Joseph Carvalko | 4 April 2024
Church and State

Israel is facing global condemnation after killing several international aid workers in Gaza. (Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

This past week during an airstrike, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) killed Gazan war aid workers, who were part of the NGO World Central Kitchen. The workers included individuals from the UK, Australia, Poland, Palestine, and a US-Canadian citizen, killed as they departed a warehouse in Deir al Balah in central Gaza. Unfortunately, this is merely a data point in an ongoing disregard for aid workers since that fateful day of October 6, 2023, where the relentless ordeal in Gaza has been particularly catastrophic for those dedicated to providing humanitarian aid. The Aid Worker Security Database reveals a chilling figure: no less than 196 humanitarians have tragically lost their lives within the embattled confines of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[1, 2] These brave souls, who devoted their lives to the service of others, have faced the terrifying specter of death from tanks, fighter jets, artillery, and snipers. They’ve been subjected to deadly bombings while seeking refuge in the safety of their homes with their families and have been targeted with apparent impunity while diligently performing their duties in hospitals, ambulances, or humanitarian convoys.

Perhaps the IDF needs to re-read the United Nations (UN) conventions on the rules of war, particularly the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, which stand as pillars of international humanitarian law, ensuring the protection and dignity of individuals affected by armed conflicts.[3] In the midst of the chaos and devastation of war, international treaties play a crucial role in safeguarding the lives of aid workers and other non-combatants, and keep humanitarian aid flowing.

We expect that professional militaries under the control of democratic governments abide by internationally recognized treaties, especially those aimed at limiting the barbarity of war. Under the Geneva Conventions, individuals who are not actively engaged in combat, such as civilians, medics, and aid workers, are given explicit protection. UN signatories must not violate the convention’s proscriptions and when they do must be sanctioned. Otherwise, these conventions represent nothing more than an aspiration. Governments did not labor over these mandates so that they could be ignored at-will.

The attack in Gaza this week serves as a perfect illustration of violence against aid workers of the kind that is made unlawful under the convention—regardless of intent. The IDF claims that misidentification caused the killing but this excuse begs credulity and accountability. Aid groups routinely share the GPS coordinates of their facilities and convoys with Israeli authorities to deconflict and thus avoid unintentional bombings. Despite this, the harrowing statistic of 161 humanitarians killed within a mere three months in the Occupied Palestinian Territories last year surpasses the highest annual death toll ever recorded for aid workers across the globe.[4] This figure is nearly triple the number of fatalities documented in any single conflict within a year—not all of these deaths can credibly be attributed to misidentification. And, one cannot feign ignorance to the long-established reputation of the IDF, one where Israel has repeatedly demonstrated it can strike targets with astounding accuracy anywhere it chooses. Just this past week an Israeli drone strike in Syria claimed the life of a senior Iranian military adviser.

Killing the enemy in the context of international armed conflicts, deliberately, is not the point. The point is directing attacks against personnel engaged humanitarian missions constitutes a grave war crime. And if misidentification is the cause, who, by name were in positions of responsibility, and will be held accountable for at the very least reckless deadly behavior.

The bombing of aid workers has a long history, one in which a civilized country should scrupulously avoid becoming a named footnote or a chapter. The range of culpability runs from accident to murder aforethought, the highest degree of intentional homicide. During the Afghanistan War, in the realm of plausible accident, the United States faced accusations of killing aid workers when it bombed the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz. At the other end of the blameworthiness spectrum, we have many incidents to draw from. The Nazi regime targeted and killed aid workers who were assisting Jews and other persecuted groups. During the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Bosnian Serb forces, led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were accused of targeting and killing aid workers who were providing assistance to civilians affected by the conflict. The Srebrenica massacre in 1995, which included aid workers among its victims, serves as a stark example of the dangers faced by those providing aid during war. President Omar al-Bashir, during the Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) was accused of targeting and killing aid workers providing assistance to civilians affected by the conflict, particularly in the Darfur region.

Building upon the principles set forth in the Geneva Conventions, the Additional Protocols serve to elaborate on the protection of aid workers and relief personnel. These protocols emphasize the obligation to respect and safeguard humanitarian relief personnel, highlighting the dire consequences of intentionally targeting those involved in humanitarian assistance missions. Note that this protection extends only to those aid workers who are entitled to the same protections as civilians under international humanitarian law.[5]

The safety and security of aid workers, who selflessly provide crucial assistance to those in need, must be upheld and respected. This constitutes one’s commitment to humanitarianism as a civilized principle. The practical longer-term effect of killing aid workers is to halt entirely crucial food deliveries, as limited as they have been since the October 6 attack on Israel that sparked the Gaza War. The international community must stand united in promoting and enforcing these vital protections to mitigate the suffering caused by armed conflicts and uphold the principles of humanity even in the most challenging times.

Violence against aid workers in times of war remains a deeply concerning issue, with numerous historical examples underscoring the vulnerability of these individuals. Efforts to improve coordination, communication, and training must be prioritized to minimize the risks faced by aid workers and protect their safety during armed conflicts. The international community, together with humanitarian organizations and governments, must strive to establish and enforce protocols and guidelines that ensure the safety and security of aid workers, even in the most challenging wartime environments. At this juncture, it would appear that the United States should openly sanction the Israeli actions that led to aid workers’ deaths, whether an accident or something more nefarious. One kind of sanction might be to withhold further supply or weaponry, until the Israeli government demonstrates that it has put in place processes that will reliably adhere to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols.

Notes

[1] https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/maps-and-graphics/2024/03/21/behind-numbers-gaza-unprecedented-aid-worker-death-toll.

[2] The Aid Worker Security Database records major incidents of violence against aid workers, with incident reports from 1997 through the present.
https://www.aidworkersecurity.org/.

[3] The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. These legal instruments protect people who do not take part in the fighting (such as civilians, medics, and aid workers). First Geneva Convention: Protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war. It contains 64 articles and provides protection not only for the wounded and sick but also for medical and religious personnel, medical units, and medical transports. The Convention recognizes distinctive emblems and includes annexes related to hospital zones and identity cards for medical and religious personnel. Protocol I (1977): Relates to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. It supplements the Geneva Conventions and provides additional safeguards for civilians, combatants, and medical personnel during such conflicts. https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/war-and-law/treaties-customary-law/geneva-conventions/overview-geneva-conventions.htm

[4] Israel-Gaza war live: Israeli airstrikes kill over 100 people in one of war’s deadliest nights, say Gaza officials. https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/israel-gaza-war-live-dozens-killed-as-israeli-strikes-on-gaza-continue-on-christmas-day/ar-AA1lZWOu; Have war crimes been committed in Israel and Gaza, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/31/have-war-crimes-been-committed-in-israel-and-gaza-and-what-international-laws-apply. Israeli air strike kills at least 70 Palestinians in central Gaza refugee camp -Palestinian health officials. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/israeli-air-strike-kills-at-least-70-palestinians-in-central-gaza-refugee-camp-palestinian-health-officials/ar-AA1lZdXH. Israel Uses Starvation of Civilians as a Weapon of War in Gaza – HRW. https://www.palestinechronicle.com/israel-uses-starvation-of-civilians-as-a-weapon-of-war-in-gaza-hrw/.

[5] What are the laws of war, and how they apply to the Israel-Gaza conflict, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-are-the-laws-of-war-punishment-war-crimes/.

Carvalko’s opinions are his own and do not reflect any affiliation he may have or enjoy in his professional or private life.

Joseph Carvalko is an American technologist, academic, patent lawyer, and writer. As an inventor and engineer, he has been awarded 18 patents in various fields. He has authored academic books, articles, and fiction throughout his career. Currently he is Chairman, Technology and Ethics Working Research Group, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University; an Adjunct Professor of Law at Quinnipiac University, School of Law, teaching Law, Science and Technology; member, IEEE, Society on Social Implications of Technology and member of the Publications Board, IEEE Transactions on Technology and Society. His latest book provides the latest account of AI and genetics from a technical, historical and ethical perspective as well as expectations for its future development.

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