UN humanitarian summit must tackle abuse of laws of war - UK MPs

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 May 2016 23:01 GMT

A sign commemorates 14 medical personnel who were killed when an American airstrike destroyed the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz. REUTERS/ Josh Smith

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Aid agencies and UN officials have decried attacks on hospitals in war zones and a Syrian refugee camp

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world's first summit on humanitarian reform this month should set in motion global political action to tackle violations of the laws of war aimed at protecting civilians, a UK parliamentary committee said on Tuesday.

In the run-up to the conference in Istanbul on May 23-24, aid agencies and U.N. officials have decried abuses of international humanitarian law (IHL), especially attacks on hospitals in conflict zones and the bombing of a refugee camp in Syria last week.

British MP Stephen Twigg, who chairs the International Development Committee, said upholding IHL "is essential to delivering aid".

"Using their presence at this summit, we urge the UK government to press all actors on the global stage to bolster international humanitarian law," he said, as the cross-party committee issued a report outlining its priorities for the summit.

Aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, which saw 75 hospitals it managed or supported bombed last year, has pulled out of the summit, saying it will not hold states to account for their role in conflicts, nor pressure them to abide by the rules of war.

The UK parliamentary committee said the summit should reinvigorate and accelerate negotiations for an intergovernmental mechanism to strengthen compliance with IHL.

The International Committee of the Red Cross proposed such a mechanism last year, but some states rejected it.

Political commitments on IHL made at the meeting should be "truly universal, and not limited to a few parties", the report added.

And states with weaker institutions should be helped to investigate and prosecute allegations of IHL violations, it said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed establishing a "watchdog" to track, collect data and report on trends of IHL violations, among other measures, it noted.

In written evidence to the inquiry, Britain's Department for International Development said: "This will be a challenging area to make immediate progress, but we cannot afford to stand by while violations of International Humanitarian Law continue."

MP Twigg, of Britain's opposition Labour Party, said much consultation had taken place ahead of the summit.

"There is recognition that the players involved need to get better at meeting the needs of people affected by conflict and disaster. But there is a distinct lack of agreement on what the priorities should be," he said in a statement.

The committee put forward five other key areas where it hopes to see concrete results, including reforms to bridge the divide between emergency relief and development aid, and more emphasis on preventing and resolving crises, from early warning systems to analysis of political risks in fragile states.

It also called for efforts to address the "unintended consequences" of counter-terrorism legislation, which can have a chilling effect on humanitarian response. The British government should explore "reasonable exceptions" for humanitarian activities, as exist in jurisdictions like Australia, it added.

The report urged British Prime Minister David Cameron to go to the summit. "As such a large donor, a signal of high-level UK support is vital to a strong summit outcome and thus a more effective delivery of UK humanitarian assistance," it said.

So far, the United Nations has indicated that 50 heads of state or government will attend but has named only a few.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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