International law is weak. It lacks general codification. It transpires through multilateral international agreements. It requires a lot of good will and respect for similar standards. It very rarely can be policed, because such situations always infringe on sovereignty. International law is often dictated by stronger parties, as opposed to the weaker parties, by realizing politics of economic or territorial domination, and over time, imposing some legal structure upon this situation. The international law is precedential on a global scale.
- Unfortunately, the global virus of populism which, day by day, consumes the rule of law in various countries is starting to devour the weak tissue of international legal standards as well.
Modernity as we know it, coined in the late XIX century, also brought modern warfare. A warfare of national, racial, and economic domination. A warfare of ultimate destruction to start colonially motivated reconstruction. Reconstruction on exclusive, national terms. A warfare in which the ideologically defined end justifies all modern means. In 1864, the first Geneva Convention was signed to regulate the treatment of wounded and sick on the battlefield. After WW I, humanity was appalled by the brutality and death toll of still mostly uniformed soldiers. Two documents called the Geneva Conventions were signed in 1929 to regulate, once more, the treatment of sick and wounded on the battlefield and the treatment of prisoners of war. As a result of WWII, in 1949, the UN redrafted the Geneva Convention documents into its fourth version, which until now was signed by 196 countries. The Fourth Geneva Convention had to take into consideration the new developments of war. Nazi Germany used land annexation, colonization, deportation, and German racial settlements all over Central Europe. Deprivation of rights, terror, mass slave labor abuse, hunger, and epidemics became the new tools of war. Tools used mostly against civilian population, something that had never happened before, and could not have been expected to be used against millions of victims. All of those tools ware legalized in the German legal code to justify the racial colonization of Central Europe. Just to make the perpetrators, in their law abiding minds, absolved from any wrongdoings. Through gradual evolution of those means, using the best possible practice and global indifference, Nazi Germany swiftly entered genocide as new method to reach its aims.
Therefore, the Fourth Geneva Convention very clearly regulates the protection of civilian populations and their treatment, defines the occupied territories, and bans colonization practices. Article 49 of document states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Lately, the US is not only withdrawing from the role of global police force, but it is also slowly disintegrating the elements of international law protecting civilians. By establishing new international precedence based on one person’s will, and often ignoring the regional complexity of conflicts, the lives of millions of people are at risk. The quid pro quo engagement in Ukraine and, at the same time, the US’s overlooking by the global community the Russian usage of its unmarked army units redefines modern conflict. Unfortunately, at the same time, it shatters how we imagine future wars, as a conflict which will happen digitally, not territorially, and with surgical rocket precision. No, Russia in Donbass uses new means of deception to run a very antiquated form of territorial conflict. They progress with Russian colonization, as they did with two occupied parts of Georgia in 2008, in spite of the fact that Russia signed the Geneva Conventions in 1960.
The US’s swift withdrawal from northern Syria, obviously coordinated with Turkey, and the abandonment of the Kurds, establishes just next precedence. There are no guarantees beyond business and political opportunities. Turkey rules and divides the land in an attempt to hit two birds with one stone. The traditional quest against the Kurds gets intermingled with a resolution to the refugee crisis. Usage or artillery in civilian areas, deportations, expulsion or targeting of refugee camps are being broadcasted on mass media globally and daily, to the point when we decide with disgust to change the channel. Once attention and awareness of the conflict and crimes dies out, the perpetrators know that there are no holds barred. Unfortunately, we are all hostages to short lived and superficial electronic media attention. We simply consume the facts instead of processing and synthesizing them. Such a mode of media consumption may sometimes give us a headache or become addictive. For people living in any conflict zone, such a shift of global news outlets and political attention has always meant more victims. Yes, I believe you can save human lives by just having the awareness of a conflict. Awareness kicks us off from our comfort zones. Awareness demands action in either charity or political pressure. This was true in 1942 as much as it is true now. Turkey signed the Geneva Convention in 1954.
- The latest US move throwing the next lifeline to the mayhem of the Israeli political scene makes another precedence. Mike Pompeo has just announced that :”After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate… the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law”. Fishing in those murky waters, the hope is that, indicted Benjamin Netanyahu will catch the lifesaver. Only in one year of Israel’s perpetual political campaigning, the US de facto recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital, cut the aid to West Bank and Gaza, shut down the Palestinian Authority consulate in Washington, and approved the annexation of Golan Heights. Is this the “Deal of the Century”? Maybe it is worthwhile for Israel to be indecisive about government a little longer and the next concessions will come. What do we have? Incorporation of Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements, re-militarization of Gaza? In this new legal situation the two-state solution is impossible and becomes a talking point. The peace process has not been directed to conflict resolution but to conflict management. Management which made the West Bank look like Swiss Cheese with Israeli settlements. Unfortunately, the words of my friend who lives behind the green line in Beit Hanina are ringing in my ears. In his words “It’s just like two men arguing about how to divide a pizza while one of them is eating it”. I would say the pizza is already consumed. The USA signed the Geneva Convention in 1955 and Israel did in 1951.
I urge to add a remark on the general relativity theory. Those words are coming easy to be written from my European, still save, home. Although Central Europe, historically and strategically, has many parallel themes with the Middle East. Peace is never taken for granted and it erodes quickly. Only a week ago my perspective was very different. I was visiting old friends in a string of kibbutzim along Gaza. The fear was palpable, the rockets were flying, the tranquility and banality of a Tel Aviv beach, at which I was waiting for the save window of opportunity to see old friends, was disturbing. Yet I still believe that the gradual erosion of international law, for the sake of short term one-sided political gains, has a very serious long term price tag attached.
We take our rights, guaranteed in International Humanitarian Laws, for granted. The Geneva Conventions are just part of those. Once we take those for granted we lose interest in what they are and how they secure us. We stop fighting for those rights. Our indifference to those regulations gives a hand to politicians to gradually dismantle or bypass the system. We indulge in thinking that it is not about me, so why should I care? The system erodes, putting more and more people at risk of their lives. First, in the current conflict zones but gradually this erosion of values also affects stable democratic states. The moral, ethical, or legal regulations are always only as good as they are commonly educated, believed, shared, and valued. Taking those for granted makes the first step in gradual decline. Especially in the world of populism where short term political gain by far overshadows the long term devastating effects of populism. The short lived social media glitter overshadows the time intensive social cohesion and social justice policy. I would call such a process a “VICIOUS CYCLE OF POLITICAL INDIFFERENCE” Yes, the situation in Donbass, Syria or the West Bank does affect the global respect for the Geneva Conventions. Thus it does affect Your own sense of security, wherever way you live Your life.
Then, when the conflict is over, and the dust settles and the devastating results of conflict are made to be known, the world asks a question: why did the victims not escape or speak ahead of time? Why did they not act earlier? Why was I not made aware of the details of the situation? We tend to blame the victims just to divert attention from the suffocating silence of global indifference. Yes, indifference kills, especially in genocides. We tend to say that we didn’t know, in an attempt to erase or disassociate from the facts that we knew. We ask: why didn’t the local population prevent it? We look for the guilty once, often shaming and silencing the survivors often. After 20 years of working with genocide victims and their families, I have a theory that the responsibility for speaking out or stopping the potentially genocidal situation on this nice planet is directly proportional to distance from the conflict zone. People in the conflict zone, regardless of how sophisticated, educated, and connected they are, are deprived of any means of stopping of what is being planned in political cabinets. They are being deprived of basic human rights, often becoming stateless subjects of the next political stages that often lead to genocide. They can disagree or upraise with dignity to be the first to die. And yes, this will still not be enough to make us react. Is there a certain humanity dysfunction in us becoming bystanders to genocide, one after the next? Is the Us and Them disassociation working that strongly? Do we lack basic imagination to understand that the disruption and erosion of social trust in our global values is happening rather sooner than expected , that it is knocking at our door? Or maybe we naively believe that tremendous, long term social cost connected to short term populist politics will not become globalized? The growing geographical distance from conflict zones increases our freedom and tools to talk of, and react to, oppression. So let us use our freedoms and tools before it is too late, and we succumb to the next vicious circle of genocide. Either as bystanders or as victims.