In a message to the world Sunday, the American parents of Peter Kassig asked everyone to focus on his “important work” rather than his beheading by Islamic State (IS). The young man is now the third Western aid worker killed by the militant group over the past year, in addition to two American journalists. So it is important to ask: What was the “work” of this idealist from Indianapolis?
Mr. Kassig was an emergency medical technician yet someone dedicated to ending the largest refugee crisis since World War II – the displacement of some 10.5 million Syrians since a civil war broke out there after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. He set up his own humanitarian group called SERA (Special Emergency Response and Assistance). And his energy and compassion inspired others to join in the effort to save the innocent in this conflict. The United Nations estimates $6 billion is needed to help Syrians who have been driven from their homes, many now living in surrounding countries. So far, only $2.8 billion has been donated, mainly by the United States, Britain, Canada, Kuwait, and Germany.
After Mr. Kassig’s capture by IS fighters a year ago, he wrote that if he should die, at least it would be “a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.” Those words only begin to describe his real “work.”
Kassig’s efforts represented a humanitarian principle made famous by Red Cross founder Henry Dunant in the 19th century: that the health needs of those in a conflict – even soldiers – must supersede all claims of ideology, nationality, or creed. Health is a basic right, one that cuts across human differences. Aid workers need unfettered access in a war zone.
In killing an aid worker like Kassig, IS also attacked a core principle of today’s international system of humanitarian law. In defiance of this universal principle, IS only loses support among the Muslims it seeks to convert to its cause of establishing a dictatorial Islamic empire.
For much of the world, aiding those who suffer in a foreign conflict is still a difficult task. One of the first modern cases of international humanitarian aid was American and European help for a Middle East conflict in 1860 between the Druze and Maronites. In his book “A History of the Arab Peoples,” Albert Hourani writes of that aid: “The idea of human identity and equality, beneath all differences, did sometimes break through.”
By their acts of humanity, tens of thousands of people like Kassig help make a reality of the universal right to health. His work will surely live on, just as his parents have asked.