Mercy flights as harbingers of peace

A humanitarian airlift of ill civilians from Yemen signals a recognition that innocents must be protected during war.

Yemeni patients board a United Nations plane in Sanaa for a medical relief flight to Jordan Feb. 3 .

In wars or disasters, a turning point often occurs when civilians are rescued. Such was the case Monday in war-wracked Yemen when a United Nations “mercy flight” evacuated seven ill people to Jordan for treatment. The humanitarian airlift was the first in three years, ending a blockade of the airport in the capital by Saudi Arabia. It marks a new recognition by the war’s combatants of a shared interest in saving lives.

More mercy flights are expected in coming days, a result of diplomatic efforts to end a five-year war that has killed more than 100,000 people. The rescue offers hope that all sides in the war might finally be honoring international humanitarian law, a starting point for eventual peace.

Saving civilians in places of trouble builds trust between opponents, which then allows for negotiated settlements. In other hot spots, such as Syria and Libya, U.N. officials are trying to open or maintain “humanitarian corridors” for civilians to keep them safe or to deliver supplies. In disaster zones, too, rescue efforts often bring foes together, even if for a short time.

In China, for example, the virus outbreak has forced Beijing to work with Taiwan to airlift Taiwanese living in the affected area of Hubei province. After 247 people were airlifted Monday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen expressed thanks to China on her Facebook page. “Although the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have different political stances, in the face of the virus human rights and humanitarianism should be put before political considerations,” she wrote.

The idea that neutral aid workers must be free to help people in jeopardy is still not widely accepted in many parts of the world. The concept was born in 19th-century Europe and later embodied in the Geneva Conventions. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the lead agency trying to assist both states and nonstate actors to accept humanitarian law.

The recognition of the innocence of civilians in a conflict area is a powerful concept for peace. When a war zone like Yemen sees the idea in action, it is a moment to celebrate. It means saving lives is becoming more important than killing foes.

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