BERLIN — The theater of war that is Syria has brought us scenes of a world devoid of rules: children killed by poisonous gas, the bodies of prisoners who were tortured or burned alive and a multitude of national armies and rebel groups that hack each other to pieces. In short, it has brought us scenes of utter barbarism. All this despite the fact that nations have, for centuries, attempted to regulate how we engage in war and how we protect civilians from the excesses of war.
After the destruction caused by the Thirty Years' War in Europe in the 17th century, all the warring parties involved managed to unite under the Westphalian Peace Treaty, which acknowledged the equality of all countries, no matter how powerful some states were. The suffering of those wounded in the battle of Solferino, in the war for Italian unification, caused one man, Henry Dunant, to found the Red Cross and create international humanitarian law. The experience of both the World Wars prompted nations to ostracize war, which, up until then, had been considered the mere continuation of politics by other means.
But why was all of this done? It was done in order to guarantee that those who commit war crimes, initiate wars of aggression or commit genocide would be held to account. As a result, some wars were prevented and some crimes were punished.
The United Nations and human rights activists had to fight continuously to ensure that the law was heeded. There were setbacks. Former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. In Africa and elsewhere, war lords took their rage out on civilians. But the world did not just simply stand by. Infractions of international humanitarian law led to protests, sanctions, tribunals and even military interventions. The UN found it difficult to intervene in the Kosovo conflict but at least it tried. No civilized state wanted to be seen as breaking international humanitarian law. That was at least some sort of progress.
Until now. Until Syria. Now it seems like the world is receding from civilization. This may be because both World Wars have largely been forgotten. It may be due to the newly kindled ideological and religious conflicts that are obscuring our sense of justice. But international humanitarian law is now dying a slow death.
There are many symptoms attesting to this diagnosis: China's expansion in the South China Sea, North Korea's nuclear program, the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some African nations, the treatment of refugees in some EU states. But nowhere is international law so brutally violated as it is on the battlefields of Syria. And those who wage war do not feel the need to justify their bloodthirsty pursuit any longer.
A group of nations without rules is in no one's interest.
Needless to say, the terror militia of ISIS is displaying particularly atrocious behavior. The Assad regime in Syria reached a new level of depravity when it used poisonous gas against its own citizens, as proven by a team of United Nations experts. The regime destroyed residential areas, starved entire cities and tortured prisoners. It is despicable that Russia has become an ally of this horrific regime. Protests in the West to all this have been mute. Many Western governments clearly do not have any regard for international humanitarian law as demonstrated by their airstrikes.
And now we can add Trump's military strike to this long list. The bombing violates the prohibition of violence — the key point of the charter of the United Nations (Chapter 1, Article 2, Section 4). Trump did not act in self-defense nor did he receive a mandate by the UN Security Council — a clear violation of international humanitarian law. And yet, Western governments applauded his actions, among them the German government, which once used to champion human rights.
There are, of course, good moral and political arguments for forcefully preventing the Assad regime from committing murder. But a group of nations without rules — a world of despotism — is in no one's interest. Despotism harbors the threat of yet another Thirty Years' War but one with modern weapons. Instead of breaking the law, the EU and U.S. should do everything in their power to enforce humanitarian edicts. Yes, that's quite a difficult task but it has never been easy to escape barbarism.