Red Cross chief: Geneva Conventions are not being respected

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says 70 years after countries adopted the Geneva Conventions to limit the barbarity of war, the terrible suffering in conflicts today shows they are not being respected.

Peter Maurer told a UN Security Council meeting yesterday marking the anniversary that continued violations of the rules in the conventions doesn't mean they are inadequate, “but rather that efforts to ensure respect are inadequate”.

He said that “we can — and must — do more.”

The treaty, which is made up of four conventions, established the modern, international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in times of war. The first three were revised from earlier treaties to update rules on protecting the wounded and sick in the armed forces on land and sea and prisoners of war. The fourth was the first-ever treaty specifically dedicated to protecting civilians in times of war.

A new provision is now included in all four conventions to provide protections in conflicts that aren't between countries, such as civil wars and those involving armed group not affiliated with governments.

The Geneva Conventions were adopted on August 11, 1949, and have been universally ratified by the world's countries.

Council members joined United Nations and other humanitarian experts in hailing the adoption of the Geneva Conventions as one of the international community's most important accomplishments, with several speakers pointing out that international law strikes a balance between military necessity and humanity in times of war.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the council the Geneva Conventions are “the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, and their spirit is upheld by the brave men and women in humanitarian operations worldwide who dedicate their lives to saving the lives of others”.

But like Maurer, Maas said respect for humanitarian law “is declining” and the complexity of modern warfare is adding deadly challenges. He pointed to extremist groups, conflicts without borders, and daily attacks on civilians, medical facilities and schools.

“We are failing the most vulnerable,” Maas said. “We are not living up to our legal and ethical obligations...It is a threat to peace and security when thousands of people die, when tens of thousands fear for their lives.”

Polish Foreign Minster Jacek Czaputowicz, who presided as this month's council president, said the greatest challenge to protecting lives in modern conflict is ensuring that armed forces and armed groups respect the rules of warfare.

“These violations of humanitarian law occur for a number of circumstances: brutal conduct of warfare, willingness to intimidate opponents, feeling of impunity of perpetrators,” Czaputowicz said. “If existing rules were followed, much of the human suffering in contemporary armed conflicts would not occur.”

Some speakers accused some actors of building violations — including the starvation of civilians and attacks against hospitals — into their wartime strategies. Others suggested that the increasing depersonalisation of conflict, including the use of drones and artificial intelligence, may require revisions to the current international legal framework.

Maurer said the challenge is to ensure not only that the conventions are part of military doctrine and rules, but that they become an ethical standard of behaviour and “that fighters facing a choice to act in violation of the law know and say, 'This is wrong; this is not who I am'.”

“Even in armed conflict, even between fierce enemies, there must be limits on the suffering that we can inflict upon each other,” Maurer said.

Meanwhile, a strategic adviser from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights pointed out that the scope of the Geneva Conventions has evolved to include the behaviour of non-State actors — which feature in most of today's armed conflicts — and expressed concern that the international community has neglected the manner in which non-State groups understand, value and implement such norms.


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