139 million reasons why the Geneva Conventions are important – Salah Saeed

Rebel fighters pose for a picture with the remains of a downed Syrian government warplane in Idlib province on Wednesday (Picture: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty)
Rebel fighters pose for a picture with the remains of a downed Syrian government warplane in Idlib province on Wednesday (Picture: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty)
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With 139 million people around the world needing humanitarian aid, the nobly constructed Geneva Conventions must be respected, writes Salah Saeed.

A profoundly important global anniversary for so many lives lived and lost passed with little attention this week. With the summer holidays drawing to a close and a sharpening focus on a return to work or school, you could be forgiven for overlooking a moment that marks decades of global efforts to protect men, women and children from the horrors of war.

On Tuesday, it was 70 years since the signing of the Geneva Conventions, agreed after the Second World War, laying down the basis for all subsequent humanitarian law and doing so much to protect the countless millions of innocent civilians caught up in conflict in the years that followed.

However, as we try to make sense of the myriad twists and turns in the news agenda, it’s clear that many of the challenges now facing humanitarians have profoundly changed, the old global order is being upended.

There is a dizzying complexity to today’s conflicts. Continuing inequality and increasing competition for natural resources, exacerbated by climate change are the shifting sands on which fragile politics frequently fracture in dangerous and unpredictable ways.

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Conflicts are rarely two-sided, often splintering into a bewildering mix of rival factions. With victory harder to define and achieve, conflicts are now lasting twice as long as they did 30 years ago. The combatants flout humanitarian law with impunity. Increasingly we see rape and starvation used for tactical advantage along with the deliberate targeting of schools and hospitals. Humanitarian workers are increasingly threatened too, just last week it was revealed by MPs that 126 international aid workers were killed last year.

For the millions of innocent civilians in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and so many other places, war and conflict has now simply become the norm.

Despite these enormous challenges, the Disasters Emergency Committee, an alliance of 14 of the UK’s leading aid organisations, is determined to take the lead in highlighting these injustices and helping those most in need as it has throughout its history.

We gain inspiration and strength from the incredible stories of courage and heroism from those caught up in conflict and, of course, from the extraordinary commitment from the thousands of front-line humanitarians who often put their own lives on the line to help others.

We are also hugely grateful for the support of the British public. We recognise that some may be sceptical in supporting those caught up in conflict for fear that aid may not reach its intended recipients or may make little difference. But for more than 50 years when the DEC’s members have asked the question, the response has come loud and clear, people across the UK will stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose lives have been shattered by conflict. That support has saved millions of lives. We recognise that as humanitarians we can’t possibly tackle all the world’s problems, our supporters know that too. But what they also know is that without organisations like the DEC and its members there would be so much more needless suffering.

With this in mind, we will re-double our efforts to make sure the plight of our fellow human beings is not relegated to merely background noise in our forever busy lives.

With the UN estimating that 139 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, most of those affected by conflict, now more than ever we need to ensure that the nobly constructed Geneva Conventions are respected. Surely our collective humanity cannot allow suffering on this scale to continue, we must do whatever we can to re-ignite the movement of people all around the world that came together after the world’s worst conflicts 70 years ago and said ‘never again’.

As the great African-American author Toni Morrison, who died just last week, so poetically reflected on her hopes for humanity: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

Salah Saeed is chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee