Even war must have limits

A Syrian family waits after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos along with other migrants and refugees, on November 17, 2015.

Story highlights

  • Dominik Stillhart: Even wars have limits, and those waging them must resolve to protect civilians
  • Combatants should let humanitarians do their work in order to get help to those in need, he says

Dominik Stillhart is director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The views expressed are the writer's own.

(CNN)In a year that saw millions of lives torn apart by armed conflict and violence across the globe, indiscriminate attacks against civilians, hospitals, water supplies and power infrastructures, and a failure by states to agree on a mechanism that would have strengthened the rules of war, 2015 was a particularly difficult one. Indeed, it feels as though the world is becoming more violent and turbulent, with not enough political will to stop the carnage.

Some important trends confirm this perception. The number of people dying in wars around the world has skyrocketed in the past few years, while more people have been forcibly displaced than at any other time in the post-World War II era, and nearly one-fifth of the world's population live in areas threatened by violence or insecurity.
Dominik Stillhart
Humanitarian agencies like the one I represent -- the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) -- have bolstered our operations to respond to a world in turmoil. As we prepare to implement our biggest budget ever in 2016, we are committed to doing our level best to alleviate the suffering of millions of people caught up in armed conflict and violence. But humanitarian aid can only do so much. Even wars have limits, and those waging them must resolve to protect civilians, stop using heavy weapons in cities, and let humanitarians do their work in order to get help to those in need.
Here are five New Year's resolutions that those fighting wars, and those with influence over global security, can commit to that would truly make a difference in the year ahead.

Stop attacks on hospitals and the wounded

Medical facilities and staff providing care in war zones have been under fire for years. While the string of attacks on hospitals and health clinics in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria in the fall of 2015 was horrifying, it is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. Such attacks occur regularly in hotspots around the world. Most are directed against local staff and clinics in places like Syria or South Sudan -- indeed an ICRC report found that 91% of attacks on war time medical care is directed against doctors, nurses, or NGOs trying to help their own people. Deliberate attacks against hospitals or doctors, or denying care to the wounded is, in most cases, a war crime, and must be stopped.

Stop using explosive weapons in populated areas

Today's armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban environments, and the development of sophisticated explosive weaponry over the last several decades has increased the potential for extensive and indiscriminate civilian casualties. The use of weapons such as missiles, rockets, and mortars also causes severe damage to hospitals, water supplies, and electricity grids -- frequently leaving thousands of people without access to basic services for months or even years. The use of heavy explosive weapons in cities often violates the rules of war and exposes civilians to unnecessary risk. It must come to an end.

Stop using aid as a weapon

Aid and access to basic services must be kept away from the politics of fighting. This year must be one in which warring parties stop using aid as a weapon. Too often, water, food, and medicine become a tool in the hands of those engaged in conflicts. For example, pockets of Syria have been under siege for many months, resulting in starvation and the proliferation of chronic diseases. In 2015, people on both sides of the front line in Aleppo had severe difficulty in accessing water because of deliberate cuts to supplies. Meanwhile, in Yemen, despite the easing of strict import restrictions, the price of commodities, like wheat and fuel, remains extremely high. This, combined with severe damage to the country's main ports has made it very difficult for many Yemeni families to get access to even the basics, including food.

Protect those fleeing violence

In 2015, the world stared in horror at the image of a body of a little Syrian boy, washed up on a Turkish shore. He came to symbolize the desperation of so many people around the globe who are fleeing violence and repression in search of a better life. The current crisis in Europe isn't the only one, it's just the most recent. There have been hundreds of thousands putting their lives at risk for years now across Central America, Southeast Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. The risks people on the move face range from kidnapping and extortion, to sexual assault and imprisonment. Until people find security at home, they will continue to cross dangerous seas and walk hundreds of miles as they seek safety. States must strive to protect and provide for their citizens as well as migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers on their territory, regardless of their immigration status.

Find ways to deescalate and solve global conflicts

The re-emergence of a global power confrontation not seen since the Cold War has led to near political paralysis at the U.N. Security Council -- a dynamic which has stymied efforts to find solutions to conflicts. While the ICRC welcomes the recent resolution unanimously adopted by the Security Council, supporting international efforts to find a political solution to the almost five-year-old conflict in Syria, the reality on the ground is that the Middle East is a growing vortex of chaos, with nearly all major world powers embroiled in a proto-world war in Syria that is having profound consequences on neighboring countries. Meanwhile, across a large part of the African continent, from Mali to Somalia and from Nigeria to South Sudan, stability is hard to find.
Ultimately, the biggest, most important contribution that powerful states can make towards alleviating suffering is through political measures to deescalate and solve these crises. It's time the international community lived up to its responsibilities for peace and security.