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opinion

Joe Clark is a former Conservative prime minister; Ed Broadbent is a former leader of the New Democratic Party; Irwin Cotler is a former Liberal MP and minister of justice.

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The Geneva Conventions were codified in 1949, in the shadow of the Second World War, to a world that sought a way to minimize the horrendous human suffering caused by unbridled armed conflict. The Conventions established a set of rules designed to protect civilians, the sick and the wounded in times of war, no matter what side of a conflict they may be on – and to ensure that structures essential to the preservation of life, such as hospitals, remain as protected spaces off-limits to military action.

The Conventions have been signed by 174 countries, including Canada, and set out not only the basic rules of war, but also the international humanitarian law that enables organizations such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the International Committee for the Red Cross and others to deliver emergency medical care and alleviate the suffering of people affected by war and conflict around the world. They are the ultimate source of protection for health-care workers and other humanitarian actors in need of safe passage and security while working amid armed violence. Without the Conventions, there would be no space for neutral, impartial and humanitarian care in the world's conflict zones.

Unfortunately, respect for the Conventions and the basic principles of international humanitarian law has been steadily eroding, as belligerents in theatres of combat around the world have treated not only medical facilities but humanitarian workers themselves as military targets. Hospitals in Syria, aid workers in Central African Republic, and medical facilities in Ukraine have all come under attack in the past year. Health-care workers have been killed, crucial infrastructure has been destroyed, and people already suffering under conflict and violence have been deprived of essential, lifesaving care.

A shocking recent addition to this list was a trauma centre run by MSF in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which was bombed repeatedly by U.S. warplanes on Oct. 3, in an attack that killed 30 people, including medical staff and patients, and wounded at least 37. This was an unambiguous and intolerable violation of the Conventions; if conducted intentionally, it may also constitute a war crime.

The horror of the Kunduz attacks – in which surgical patients were incinerated in their beds, and doctors were shot from the air as they fled the burning buildings – cannot be minimized. But the deliberate and targeted nature of the attacks has provided the world with an opportunity to declare that enough is enough: The erosion of international humanitarian law – and of the space for neutral and impartial medical care in conflict zones – must stop, and respect for the rules of war must be restored.

It is time to stand up for the Geneva Conventions. Those who violate the established rules of war must be held accountable. Canada, as a leading member of the international community, must do its part to uphold the letter and spirit of humanitarian law. That's why we call upon Canada to reaffirm its commitment to the Conventions by taking the following actions:

* Supporting the call for an independent investigation into the U.S. bombing of MSF's trauma centre in Kunduz by urging our American allies to co-operate with the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an independent body created by the Geneva Conventions in 1991 for just this purpose. The commission has been activated, but it cannot carry out its work without full co-operation from the U.S. and Afghan governments. While both governments have promised their own reviews of the Oct. 3 incidents, we cannot hope to demonstrate that we take international law seriously if we leave it to those responsible for potential violations to investigate themselves.

* Using the opportunity presented by the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, taking place in Geneva in December, to reaffirm Canada's support for the principles of international humanitarian law and to press our partners and allies to take concrete measures to uphold the Conventions.

Last month's air strikes in Afghanistan were a wake-up call, but they were not isolated incidents. Since the attacks, a hospital supported by MSF was bombed in Yemen, as were six other hospitals in Syria. These events were not only attacks on a humanitarian medical organization, they were also assaults on the civilian victims of war who rely on such organizations for essential care.

We recognize that the theatre of war is a complicated place, with many new internal conflicts and actors. Yet the Geneva Conventions do not need rewriting; they require restored adherence and enforcement. Humanitarian aid workers and doctors with MSF and other organizations must be able to continue their work, without fear of dying in the act of caring for their patients.

As Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, said in an unprecedented joint warning last week, "In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis. The world must reaffirm its humanity and uphold its commitments under international humanitarian law."