The Laws of War and Modern Empathy

The Laws of War and Modern Empathy

I can’t speak on behalf of all development and humanitarian aid workers, but I am certain that my thoughts echo those of many – the innumerable images of families, of children, of people staring at nothing, broken and hopeless have become, over time, images that we feel compelled to both do something about and simultaneously turn away from because we feel hopeless too. Why? Because we know that the conflicts, intolerance, tyranny and hatred that compel families to uproot themselves and risk the unsafe and uncertain journey to ‘safety’ could have been dealt with and resolved long ago. Those of us that work in the trenches know what needs to be done but, sadly, the people that need to listen and act simply don’t.

In theory, conflict management looks very complex. In practice, it can be even more so – if you want to make it so. It can also be easier. The deciding factor is ego. Ego of the parties in conflict, and ego of those acting as negotiators or mediators. And in the words of Irwandi Yusuf, a former commander of the Free Aceh Movement, ‘peace will never happen until there is a stalemate.’ So, until there is a stalemate – when there is no one left to kill, no territory worth anything left to win, when anything of value has been destroyed – egos will not take a back seat to basic humanity.

In theory, keeping people safe during conflict should be straightforward – there are international principles and ‘laws’ on codes of conduct and the treatment of civilians in times of conflict. In practice, these principles and laws are out of date – and out of step – with the nature of conflict and war in the present day. Most are more than 100 years old – formulated back in a time when nations had armies that fought each other on designated battle fields. How countries react to war – their guiding policies, regulations and the political culture of the country and its people in times of crisis – have also innately been defined and evolved with principles and codes of conduct that were relevant more than a century ago. Before the age of globalization, in the days when territorial borders meant more and were treated like more than lines on a map.

In practice, the world has changed, the nature of war and conflict has changed (so much so that traditional definitions of conflict and war are in dire need of rethink), and the control of the information that citizens of one country can receive about another is completely out of the hands of the government. In short, the expectations that governments have of themselves when it comes to responding to war and conflict – and the refuges that stem from it – continue to align with expectations formed a century ago, while the expectations that populations have (and refugees have) have evolved to match the needs of the time. So, when we see government officials on the news talking about how and why they can (or cannot) respond to the current refugee crisis out of Syria and Iraq, and the Rohingya refugee and trafficking crisis in South East Asia, we struggle to understand the rationale for their positions. Their arguments feel weak. We despair at their lack of ‘humanity’ and empathy for people simply trying to survive.

But because the international community has never gotten around to discussing and renegotiating the century-old laws of war, codes of conduct in conflict and what it means to be a refugee in the 21st century, irrelevant principles will continue to guide politicians, and their egos about what their role is versus what their role should be will continue to dismay us all.

The flow of desperate people fleeing for their lives from conflict and violence around the world is an excellent example of why development and conflict management theories and the actual practice of development and conflict management are often disjointed. Theories don’t keep pace with change and the changing expectations of conflict victims and the general population. We want to see empathy and humanity trump the economic considerations of a country’s decision to help the people who need it. We want to see moral leadership, not ‘security’ leadership. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt and help them – not cloak them in an air of suspicion and hinder their journey.

So it’s nice to some moral leadership – thank you to the people of Austria and Germany. Let’s look to their response to understand the future of codes of conduct by countries during times, to understanding the role that we expect governments to fulfill in the protection of refugees during times of crisis…

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