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International humanitarian law needs strengthening: ICRC

August 12, 2009

The fourth Geneva Convention was agreed to 60 years ago, and primarily focused on the protection of civilians during war. But as the nature of armed conflict changes, experts believe the conventions need to be broadened.

Soldiers watch over Iraqi civilians - a tank and black smoke are in the background
More and more civilians are falling victim to the ravages of wars and armed conflictsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Made up of four treaties that set the standards of international humanitarian law, the first Geneva Convention was ratified on Aug. 22, 1864 and dealt mainly with regulating the treatment of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. The convention was expanded upon over decades as the nature of war changed.

The fourth Convention, ratified on Aug. 12, 1949, addressed the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It was negotiated in the aftermath of World War II, which took the lives of at least 60 million people, the majority of whom were civilians.

Together, all four treaties and the three protocols are known as the Geneva Conventions, agreed 60 years ago by 194 countries.

A painting of the signing of the original Geneva Convention in 1864
The first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864Image: picture alliance / dpa

But today it is civilians - not soldiers - who bear the main brunt of battle. Armed conflict is also increasingly stemming from guerilla movements within one country rather than two or more countries warring with one another. The so-called "war on terror" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States has prompted some experts to say that international humanitarian law has been undermined.

On the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, Deutsche Welle spoke with Florian Westphal, of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. Founded in the same year as the first Geneva Convention, the Red Cross plays a key role in monitoring adherence to the treaties.

Deutsche Welle: What have been the biggest challenges in ensuring that the Geneva Conventions are respected and their guidelines implemented?

Florian Westphal: On the positive side, the conventions are now quite unique, in a sense that as a treaty, they are universally ratified. You have 194 states that have ratified the treaty. I think we should try to imagine what the world would be like without them - a world in which in war pretty much anything would be allowed.

But on the negative side, you still have far too many times when this law is violated and violated with impunity. What we try to do is on the one hand, raise awareness of the law, especially amongst those who wage war. They have to know what their obligations are under the law, but also to really push governments, as well as also state-armed groups and rebels, to live up to their obligations and investigate where there may have been war crimes, and to punish those responsible. While there has been some progress in the past six decades - for example, we have international criminal courts that now look into war crimes - it's still clear that there are far too many violations, especially against civilians.

What are the obligations of the conventions?

Coffins of 335 Srebrenica victims - the worst massacre of civilians since World War II
Identified bodies of 335 Srebrenica victims - the worst massacre of civilians in Europe since World War IIImage: AP

They are wide-ranging, but relate primarily to the protection and assistance of those who have been wounded or sick during war, to those who are detained or imprisoned - war itself is not prohibited, but there are certain rules governing the treatment of prisoners that have to be obeyed and those governing the protection of civilians.

The Geneva Conventions are the cornerstone of the body of law called international humanitarian law, so they don't stand on their own, but are complemented by a wide range of other agreements governing, for example, landmines or treaties signed on cluster munitions.

The conventions, though, do accept that countries that are at war are trying to win them, so they try to strike a balance between military necessity on the one hand, and the right to life and personal dignity of the individual on the other.

How have the nature of war and the protection of civilians during war changed over time?

With the Geneva Conventions and all the other treaties that make up international humanitarian law, we now have an ever wider and more comprehensive system of safeguards to protect civilians against the worst ravages of war. These legal safeguards do not aim to outlaw war, but they surely want to ensure that limits are imposed on what is permitted, that war is not a free-for-all. And those who do not respect these limits will be held to account.

The examples set by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia - that even senior government officials can be held accountable for having perpetrated war crimes, and that impunity is becoming less of an option - are extremely important. It makes it clear that people cannot simply flout their responsibilities and hope to get away with it.

How have the "war on terror" and Guantanamo Bay changed the terms of the Conventions?

I think there was a lot of debate when this term "war on terror" was initially brought up after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, there were some suggestions that the Geneva Conventions were somehow outdated for this form of confrontation. But it's important to keep in mind that the Geneva Conventions were designed to apply during wars, and during wars only, and they have a pretty strict definition of what constitutes a war. So our argument has been that when this so-called 'war on terror' actually constitutes an armed conflict in the sense of the law, as is the case in Afghanistan, for example, then you should apply international humanitarian law.

FARC rebels watch over army and police captured in battle
The ICRC wants international law applied to rebel groups, like FARC, as well as nationsImage: AP

When it's a situation that is a police action, such as the reactions to the awful bombings in London and Madrid, these are not situations of war. These are situations are where national criminal law come into effect, and where it - along with work together with human rights law - is best equipped to deal with this situation. That's effectively exactly what happened.

How must the guidelines set out in the Geneva Conventions be modified for the future to ensure humanitarian treatment of people during armed conflict?

The whole body of international humanitarian law, of which the conventions are a key component, needs to be dynamic because the character of armed conflict is obviously changing substantially. One example: when the conventions were signed six decades ago, most wars were still fought between states. What we're now seeing is that most wars are now civil wars, wars fought within states. That means that other treaties have had to be added to deal with that particular situation. It also means that not only states, but rebel groups or insurgents, whatever you want to call them, must adhere to these laws.

Over the next five to 10 years, the ICRC will look at areas of the law that apply to civil war and where we feel there needs to be strengthening. We do that, for example, through diplomacy, or direct contact with the belligerents, to make sure they live up to their obligations on very concrete cases, such as inside a prison, or when dealing with civilians.

What can people on the ground - people within a country - do to ensure international humanitarian law is respected? Can they just call up the police and report a violation?

If you have the misfortune of living in a country where there is an armed conflict, and where this situation comes up where the law should be applied, what the state is obliged to do is to make sure that the necessary national legislation exists that allows you to implement these treaties.

The Geneva Conventions don't say that if you commit this or that war crime, it means five years of imprisonment. To be that concrete, and to actually be able to try individuals for violations, a state needs to pass national legislation and regulations. That's what we try to do during peace time so that in the eventuality of war, the legislation is in place.

Interview: Louisa Schaefer

Editor: Sean Sinico

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