02/19/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

What After Homs?

A temporary ceasefire in Homs has allowed for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid inside the Old City. For a first time in the madness of Syria's civil war there has been a glimpse of what passes for "normality" in conflict zones: UN vehicles driving in and out, bringing help and hope to desperate people. This war has been so terrible for so long that I fear we are losing our perspective on what normality is.

It is not normal to take 14 months for the UN to negotiate a humanitarian pause in Homs. It is not normal for aid convoys to be shot at on their way to Homs. It is not normal that at least 240,000 people are trapped in besieged areas and another three million in places where fighting prevents the regular delivery of aid. It is not normal for humanitarian workers to be fair game for fighters from both sides. It is not normal that civilians are arrested arbitrarily and held incommunicado.

But this is how it is in Syria -- civilians have been killed and deprived of assistance day after day for too long while the world is watching. In fact the world cannot even watch, because journalists -- our eyes and ears -- are also being targeted to such a degree that even these brave witnesses are unable to function in an extremely hostile environment.

So when does the unacceptable become normal? Does this happen just because it goes on for so long that moral standards become blurred and the International Humanitarian Laws - the "laws of war" -- are buried along with the victims of that same blatant disrespect for their existence? What would it take for us all to recognise that this is no longer just about the suffering of the Syrian people but also about what kind of people we are ... and how we define ourselves in relation to our own understanding of humanity? We cannot allow Syria to become a mass grave for tens of thousands and for our universal principals.

I pray that the partial breakthrough in Homs could be the start of a new beginning. While far from perfect, it has shown that ceasefires are possible, that lives can be saved. But it has also highlighted the tragedy of those who are pinned down elsewhere -- in Madamiyet Elsham and Yarmouk, in Nubl and Zahra, in Eastern Ghouta and Darayya -- with no way for help to get in or for innocent civilians to get out.

A determined and united international community can change this and bring a renewed focus on respect for International Humanitarian Law for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of our own humanity.

In New York and Geneva, in Washington and Moscow, in Brussels and Tehran and Ryadh, it is time to set aside our differences on the wrongs of this war and to unite on what is right: to protect innocent civilians and the aid workers who are there to help. From our bitter history of wars we know it can be done.