Wars must not break law of hu­man­ity

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

One hun­dred and fifty years ago to the day, the first Geneva Con­ven­tion for the Ame­lio­ra­tion of the Con­di­tion of theWounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field was adopted, en­shrin­ing the idea in in­ter­na­tional lawthat even in times of war, a cer­tain de­gree of hu­man­ity must be pre­served. Switzer­land and the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, which to­gether helped to se­cure ac­cep­tance for in­ter­na­tional humanitarian la­won the world stage at that time, are now call­ing for stricter com­pli­ance with this prin­ci­ple, as there re­mains a lack of effective mech­a­nisms for en­cour­ag­ing com­pli­ance around the globe.

To­day’s wars have lit­tle in com­mon with the bat­tles of the 19th cen­tury. The fight­ing has grad­u­ally moved from clearly de­fined bat­tle­fields to pop­u­lated ar­eas. Tra­di­tional war between armies of op­pos­ing states is the ex­cep­tion, while non-in­ter­na­tional con­flicts have be­come the norm. Nowa­days civil­ians bear the brunt of armed con­flicts.

In­ter­na­tional humanitarian lawhas adapted to this change. Ap­palled by the de­struc­tion and suf­fer­ing caused byWorldWar II, states agreed in the four Geneva Con­ven­tions of 1949 on com­pre­hen­sive pro­tec­tion for those who are not or are no longer par­tic­i­pat­ing in hos­til­i­ties— wounded and sick sol­diers, pris­on­ers of war and civil­ians. This cor­ner­stone of in­ter­na­tional humanitarian lawwas sup­ple­mented in 1977 and 2005 by three ad­di­tional pro­to­cols.

The use of cer­tain weapons, such as bi­o­log­i­cal or chem­i­cal weapons, clus­ter mu­ni­tions and anti-per­son­nel mines is now widely out­lawed. The lawhas put bar­ri­ers in place to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble from the bru­tal­ity of war. Its im­ple­men­ta­tion has also seen a cer­tain amount of progress, such as in the train­ing of sol­diers or in the pros­e­cu­tion of the worst war crimes thanks in par­tic­u­lar to the found­ing of the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court.

Nev­er­the­less, ev­ery day we re­ceive hor­rific re­ports and pic­tures from around the world that bear wit­ness to un­speak­able suf­fer­ing in armed con­flicts. All too of­ten, se­ri­ous breaches of in­ter­na­tional humanitarian laware the cause of this suf­fer­ing. Un­der­ly­ing it all is our col­lec­tive fail­ure. The Con­tract­ing States un­der­took in Ar­ti­cle 1 com­mon to the fourGeneva Con­ven­tions of 1949 “to re­spect and to en­sure re­spect” for th­ese Con­ven­tions “in all cir­cum­stances”. Thus far, how­ever, they have failed to give them­selves the re­sources required to keep their prom­ises. In­ter­na­tional humanitarian lawhas since its con­cep­tion lacked mech­a­nisms for en­cour­ag­ing effective com­pli­ance. This im­po­tence has of­ten meant death and de­struc­tion for those af­fected by war.

The prin­ci­ples of in­ter­na­tional humanitarian lawap­ply uni­ver­sally. How­ever, con­stant ef­fort is required, as there is no guar­an­tee that they will per­dure. A right that is reg­u­larly vi­o­lated with­out pro­vok­ing any clear re­sponse is likely to lose its va­lid­ity over time. The con­se­quences for the vic­tims of armed con­flicts do not bear think­ing about.

This is why Switzer­land and the ICRC have been hold­ing talks since 2012 with all states on the best way to im­prove com­pli­ance with in­ter­na­tional law. Their work is based on a man­date given by the 31st In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence of the Red Cross and the Red Cres­cent. They are con­vinced that states need a forum where they can de­cide jointly on the mea­sures that are needed to bring bet­ter com­pli­ance with in­ter­na­tional humanitarian law. They should have reg­u­lar and sys­tem­atic dis­cus­sions on how they are meet­ing their obli­ga­tions. The forum would help the states to grad­u­ally es­tab­lish an over­all pic­ture of how th­ese obli­ga­tions are be­ing ful­filled, and how the as­so­ci­ated chal­lenges are be­ing met.

On this ba­sis, the states could fi­nally take steps to re­in­force the ap­pli­ca­tion of the law, for ex­am­ple, by as­sist­ing each other to de­velop the skills and ca­pac­i­ties required to meet their obli­ga­tions. They could also keep each other up-to-date and ex­change views on the most effective mea­sures to tackle this of­ten com­plex task.

A forum of states would also cre­ate the con­di­tions required to en­sure that the law­dic­tates future de­vel­op­ments in war­fare (such as newweapons tech­nol­ogy) and not vice-versa. This re­quires a reg­u­lar di­a­logue on cur­rent is­sues of in­ter­na­tional humanitarian law. It is also im­por­tant that the states have an ap­pro­pri­ate in­stru­ment to re­spond to se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional humanitarian law, to pre­vent such crimes in the future and to pro­tect civil­ian pop­u­la­tions from fur­ther suf­fer­ing. A mech­a­nism for in­ves­ti­gat­ing the causes of such vi­o­la­tions would be ex­pe­di­ent.

In ac­cor­dance with their man­date, Switzer­land and the ICRC will sub­mit spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions on the es­tab­lish­ment of such a forum at the 32nd In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence of the Red Cross and Red Cres­cent, which will be held in Geneva in late 2015. At that con­fer­ence the states will de­cide what ac­tion to take.

Since the adop­tion of the first Geneva Con­ven­tion 150 years ago, in­ter­na­tional humanitarian lawhas be­come a cen­tral pil­lar of the in­ter­na­tional le­gal or­der. Ul­ti­mately its pro­vi­sions serve to pro­tect our key char­ac­ter­is­tic as hu­man be­ings: our hu­man­ity. This is an ir­rev­o­ca­ble right. It is based on the be­lief, forged over the cen­turies and in all our cul­tures, ac­cord­ing to which it is es­sen­tial to lay down rules if we want to pre­vent wars from de­gen­er­at­ing into bar­barism.

It is up to our gen­er­a­tion to con­sol­i­date th­ese achieve­ments and to cre­ate an in­sti­tu­tional frame­work to en­sure th­ese rules are re­spected. If it is to be fully effective, the lawneeds suit­able in­stru­ments. Never in the his­tory of hu­mankind have we been closer to a so­lu­tion than we are to­day. It is up to us to seize this op­por­tu­nity. Di­dier Burkhal­ter is pres­i­dent of the Swiss Con­fed­er­a­tion, and PeterMau­rer is the pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross.

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