The last century has seen the emergence of several humanitarian norms and laws that were arduous, even frustrating, to implement and often ignored by governments, but which were the result of important lessons learned from the destruction that the world wars brought to civilian populations.

Historical attempts to limit organized brutality had existed before the world wars, as the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 – which brought the system of modern states into existence – epitomizes. Though these efforts should not be trivialized, the world wars catalyzed efforts to devise legal mechanisms to protect civilians and combatants on a global scale.

For example, the “Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War” were signed in Geneva in 1929, a bit more than a decade after World War I. The term Geneva Conventions usually refers to an agreement four years after the conclusion of World War II, which not only updated the terms in regards to prisoners of war of the previous Geneva conventions, but also stipulates the humane treatment of the wounded and sick, as well as civilians in and around warzones. As brutal as the wars since the Second World War continued to be – humanitarians were now handed some legal mechanism that obligated states to prevent combatants from indiscriminately attacking civilians or abusing prisoners of war.

International treaties also sought to protect those displaced by war: The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees put into existence a previously-lacking legal framework and even a whole agency, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), with the sole aim of serving displaced people. Before the United Nation member states could all formulate a “duty to rescue at sea” – which is binding in peace and wartime – in the second half of the 20th century, no legal obligation to rescue drowning people on the high sea existed.

Unfortunately, we have entered a time in which all these fragile accomplishments have become imperiled: As Alexander de Waal of the Fletcher School of Government – one of the most renowned scholars on the topic of humanitarian emergencies – argues, we are living in times that are shaped by “counter-humanitarianism ideologies”. These are not principled criticisms of humanitarian overreach, informed by a fear that overambitious humanitarian actions may undermine the very principles it tries to protect. Rather these emerging “counter-humanitarianism ideologies” constitute an outright rejection of humanitarian values and the institutions enabled by these values.

There are several reasons behind why we have entered this brave new world: One is that retrograde xenophobic political movements have swept the polls in western countries, which have grown more economically unequal and polarized on issues such as race and migration. For whatever precise reasons, the supporters of LePen of France, Orbán of Hungary, and Donald Trump in the US sneer at humanitarian norms. Even centrist governments may clamp down on humanitarian norms in an attempt to take away voters from rightwing parties.

Our era of unending wars – which are, in the words of De Waal, fought “with diminishing respect for humanitarian norms by militant insurgents, regional powers and western counter-terrorists” – are also inimical to upholding humanitarian norms. As the militarization of much of US foreign aid exemplifies, the US-led War on Terror was often a direct assault on the principles of humanitarian neutrality.

Another global trend – which is often cited as contributing to human rights playing a lesser role in global politics – is what analysts call the “decline of the liberal order”, which is a system of agreed-upon international rules embodied by the United Nations. It is a system that was upheld by US power and finds itself eroded as non-western countries such as China and Russia emerge as powerful global players. The argument goes that now a transactional foreign policy that is less based on humanitarian norms but self-interested costs-and-benefits calculations inform policies This line of reasoning is problematic if one seriously takes into account that in many cases western countries lived up to humanitarian norms in principle, but not in practice; as their unending wars, support for autocrats and weapon exports epitomize.

Whatever the precise reasons, “counter-humanitarianism ideologies” have already deeply affected the way western countries deal with migrants, wage war and deliver humanitarian assistance. Perhaps counter-humanitarianism emerges as the new overarching organizing policy-principles, at least in these fields. However hypocritical governments used to be when they claimed compliance with humanitarian norms, they used to honor a few rules in regards to migration, war and development.

One only needs to observe the heart-wrenching images of migrants drowning on the high sea in the Mediterranean and the family separations at the US border to understand the extent of today’s “counter-humanitarianism.” Migrants have died while they were trying to reach Europe for more than twenty years. In 2018 on World Refugee Day, the Guardian published a list of all migrant deaths since 1993, compiled by the NGO United for Intercultural Action (UNITED): the number stood at 34,361. The deaths occurred not only through drowning at sea, but also, for example, through suicide in detention centers and shootings by border-guards and police officers.

Despite this long history of migrants dying as they attempt to enter Europe, the treatment of migrants has deteriorated in the last years. For one, there is the criminalization of attempts to rescue migrants on the high sea. For example, Italy is charging two German humanitarians and boat captains, Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp, who has personally assisted in saving 1,000 lives, with aiding illegal migration because of their rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

These latest proceedings follow the trend of recent years: Italy has banned aid organizations from operating recue vessels within its territorial waters, while Malta denies vessels with refugees on board entry into its harbors. By design, such moves have made the rescue of distressed migrants very difficult, if not impossible.

As the NGO Human Rights Watch quite succinctly put it, “Europe is losing its moral compass in the Mediterranean.” But these failures of Italy and Malta, in which all of Europe is complicit, are not only moral, but also legal violations. As Irini Papanicolopulu, associate professor of international law at the University of Milano, affirms in the International Review of the Red Cross, “There is no doubt that the duty to rescue is one of the best-established principles of the international law of the sea, maritime law and international humanitarian law.” The “duty to rescue” at sea became part of international treaty law after World War II, but belong to the oldest customary laws, internalized by sailors throughout the world’s waterways.

Italy also collaborates with Libya to “pull back” migrants. The country works with Libya’s coastguard – which, in a country torn apart by a complicated proxy war, which is fought by regional powers and enabled by French and Italian geostrategies – includes militia members. Migrants are routinely brought back to Libya, where they endure violations such as beatings, rape and starvation. On July 3rd an air strike reportedly killed 53 migrants, including six children, in a migrant detention center in Libya.