With the Syrian conflict entering its seventh year, United Nations officials are asking if the country has become a war zone empty of international norms. Chemical weapons are used in violation of international law. Aid is denied to millions of displaced civilians. Torture and other human-rights atrocities are commonplace. The death toll is now more than 400,000. And negotiations to end the war have so far been useless.
“How many times have we pleaded for the laws of war to be heeded or for a lasting political solution to end the conflict?” says Stephen O’Brien, UN emergency relief coordinator.
Yet amid a conflict that appears free of moral conventions, humanitarian law does have a strong foothold. Nearly 5 million Syrian refugees have spent years in nearby countries, welcomed with the type of hospitality toward strangers that is deeply rooted in the Abrahamic religions. Most of the refugees are in Turkey, but in tiny Lebanon they make up nearly a quarter of the population. And in an important measure of the world’s commitment to international law, a conference in Brussels this week resulted in new pledges of aid for Lebanon.
Helping Middle East countries host the refugees – and fight off any “compassion fatigue” – is a critical investment for the future of Syria. The war will end some day, and the refugees will return. Their treatment as guests in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and other countries will instill values such as diversity and tolerance, which will be important in rebuilding their country. Given the history of war and enmity in the Middle East, any lessons of hospitality must be supported.
A similar hospitality can be found in Tunisia toward Libyan refugees and in the neighboring countries of Nigeria toward refugees fleeing Boko Haram militants. Even though such conflicts largely ignore international rules of war, they are not “empty” of humanitarian law. The aid provided to Syrian refugees has helped them to retain their dignity. When given shelter and work, they feel control over their lives and prepare themselves to return home.
This is law in action, or humanity’s humanity at work. Rather than bemoan the absence of international law in Syria, it may be time to recognize where part of it already exists.