Can humanitarian law be observed in wartime?

By Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, Legal Director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and author of The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

"In wartime, as in the current Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, there is a continuing temptation to assert the use of force to the detriment of international rules of humanitarian law. "These rules were supplemented in 1977 by additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions, which were adopted in 1949. Article 57 of the first additional protocol prohibits automatic reprisals against civilian sites, as occurred last week with regard to the three UN schools in the Gaza Strip. "Israeli forces bombed these sites, which had been converted into places of refuge for the population. More than 40 people were killed at one school. Israeli authorities justified the bombings by claiming that Hamas had fired rockets from the schools. "The requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants is essential, even in conflicts that occur in urban areas.  Regardless of the provocation, automatic reprisals are not authorized. The rules of proportionality, precaution, and graduated response must be observed. The Israeli authorities’ "legitimate defense” argument cannot justify the serious harm to civilians. Yesterday, on the eighteenth day of fighting, the offensive had produced 930 deaths, including 277 children. "I agree with the statements of John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). Yesterday in Geneva, he said that the Gaza war has created 'a crisis of protection for civilians, who have nowhere to flee.' He added that this is 'a test for our humanity and our ability to protect 1.5 million people' under the Geneva conventions. Israeli authorities, who have prohibited journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, have stripped international law of its power to protect civilians. It is being flouted there. Operations to aid the wounded cannot be put in place and there is a refusal to limit the intensity of fighting to protect the safety of civilians. By using the population as human shields, Hamas, which is hardly seen, is not respecting the rules of international humanitarian law, either. The weapons used – phosphorus bombs, fragmentation bombs and mines – are not totally prohibited, but their use is authorized only with respect to military objectives. It is thus not possible to use them when military objectives and civilians are mixed, as in the urban area of Gaza.”