Glance at any newsstand or catch any rolling news channel, and you will be confronted by a seemingly unrelenting tide of horror. Limp bodies pulled from rubble, shells and barrel bombs pounding once leafy neighborhoods. Refugees huddled for warmth or risking life and limb for survival. Mass abductions and beheadings.
From Ukraine to Nigeria, from Libya to Syria, the last 12 months have been a year of harrowing bloodshed. Millions of civilians have been caught up in conflict, with violence by states and armed groups inflicting untold death, injury and suffering. For the first time, Amnesty International has tallied the number of countries where war crimes have been committed: a shocking 18 in 2014. Among the worst were Syria, the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria and Israel and the Palestinian territories.
As a result of the growth of groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, abuses by armed groups spilled over national borders, reaching at least 35 countries.
Faced with the enormity and the relentlessness of this horror it is easy to feel hopeless. But we are not powerless. Our governments and institutions may lack the will but they have the capacity, both individually and collectively, to help protect civilians in danger. It is a duty that they are abjectly failing to fulfill.
In our annual report being released Wednesday, we examine the human rights situation in 160 countries. We find that the global response to conflict and abuses has been shameful and ineffective.
Weapons have been allowed to flood into countries where they are used for grave abuses by states and armed groups with huge arms shipments delivered to Iraq, Israel, Russia, South Sudan and Syria last year alone. As the Islamic State took control of large parts of Iraq, it found large arsenals, ripe for the picking.
An historic Arms Trade Treaty came into force last year, providing a legal framework for limiting the international transfer of weapons and ammunition. But many nations have yet to ratify the treaty. There is also an urgent need for restrictions to tackle the use of explosive weapons — including aircraft bombs, mortars, artillery, rockets and ballistic missiles — that have devastated populated areas.
The United Nations, established 70 years ago to ensure that we would never again see the horrors witnessed in the Second World War, has repeatedly failed to act, even where it could prevent terrible crimes from being committed against civilians. The use of veto powers has enabled the narrow vested interests of the Security Council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to take precedence over the needs of victims of serious human rights violations and abuses. This has left the United Nations hamstrung and increasingly discredited at this critical time.
Last week, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote to the Security Council, calling for an end to the “business-as-usual” approach to Syria and urgent action to lift sieges on civilians and to end barrel bomb attacks. This appeal followed four vetoes by Russia and China that blocked Security Council action on Syria that could have helped save civilian lives. Likewise, the United Nations’ failure to pass a single resolution during the 50-day conflict in Gaza last year was largely due to the threat of a veto by the United States. Each such failure diminishes what little trust is left in the Security Council to take decisive action to protect civilians.
The failures of our governments and institutions are dismaying, but they should spur us to action. We call on our governments to take some fundamental steps.
In situations where mass atrocities are being committed — or about to be committed — the five veto-wielding states should commit to not use their veto. In doing so, they will unshackle the Security Council, enabling it to protect the lives of civilians in advance, during or in the wake of grave crimes. Such a commitment would also send a clear signal to perpetrators of abuse that the world will not sit idly by while mass atrocities — war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide — take place.
Some may argue that it is wildly unrealistic to expect the five permanent members to place the suffering of civilians in distant lands above their geopolitical interests. But this thinking is both morally and logically flawed. The nature of global conflict is changing. The definition of any country’s national interest should no longer be viewed through a blinkered nationalistic lens.
Conflicts no longer respect national borders. Armed groups and their ideologies do not confine themselves to their country of origin. Impunity emboldens human rights abusers and weapons empower them. Meanwhile the human tide of refugees creeps ever higher. In 2014, more than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
The myopic response of our leaders has been not only ineffective but counterproductive. Governments around the world have resorted to knee-jerk, draconian “anti-terror” tactics that have only served to undermine our fundamental human rights and helped to create conditions of repression in which extremism thrive. Last year, 131 countries tortured or otherwise ill-treated people, and prisoners of conscience were jailed in 62 countries. Three quarters of governments investigated by Amnesty International had arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression, cracking down on press freedom, arresting journalists or shutting down newspapers. These figures are a disturbing increase from previous years.
Government leaders have attempted to justify human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the world “safe.” But the truth is, there can be no genuine security without human rights.
The challenges facing us are substantial and tackling them will not be easy. Abuses by states are difficult to confront and the ruthlessness of armed groups like the Islamic State and the threat they pose cannot be underestimated.
It will take commitment, vision and global cooperation. People of conscience must recognize that we are not powerless, and our governments must stop pretending that the protection of civilians is beyond their power.
Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International.