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Preserving Humanity in Conflict

By Knut Dörmann

Knut Dörmann describes the central role of the Geneva Conventions and the International Committee of the Red Cross in constraining the brutality of warfare.

An ICRC staff member in the aftermath of conflict in Lebanon [Till Mayer/ICRC]

It is 70 years since the last world war, but we are far from being a world at peace. It is more than 150 years since the signing of the original Geneva Convention, designed to ensure humanity does not descend into barbarity during conflict, yet the world is far from upholding that ideal conscientiously and wholeheartedly.

People have always resorted to violence to settle disputes. And historically, cultures across the world have always believed that there must be limits on that violence. Scriptures dating back to the first century BCE allude to rules of war and rules protecting civilians, prisoners and the wounded. Today, these rules are codified in international humanitarian law, whose cornerstone is the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005. Yes, even wars have limits; limits that need to be enforced for the sake of what it means to be human.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been closely linked to the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law right from the start. Henry Dunant, who founded the ICRC, was also the driving force behind the original Geneva Convention "for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded in armies in the field," which was adopted in 1864. Since then, the ICRC has been an integral part of the dynamic process of developing and strengthening this body of law, adapting it to ongoing changes in warfare at the same time as the organization deals with the reality of armed conflict and its consequences for the victims on the ground.

While international humanitarian law was successfully strengthened over time, thus adapting it to ongoing changes in warfare, there is a continuous challenge to ensure its observance, sometimes even of the most fundamental rules. Today, in some of the many armed conflicts unfolding around the world--particularly in parts of the Middle East and Africa--the humanitarian impact of violence on entire populations within and beyond national borders is brutal and simply overwhelming.

A refugee convoy protected by the Red Cross in China, 1926 [© Photo12/UIG/Getty Images]

No amount of words can adequately convey the scale and depth of suffering of many of those civilians--nor, in all honesty, will they offer a way to end it. When practically every man, woman and child in a country has been directly or indirectly affected by violence, and every family you meet has a heartbreaking story to tell, the need for decisive action rather than just words really does become a matter of life or death.

While the search for political solutions continues, it is the role of humanitarian organizations like the ICRC to help alleviate the consequences of violence rather than to question its causes. But this role is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfill in many of today's most complex and violent crises. Reasons for this include:

  • the overt politicization of aid and the polarization of states around humanitarian issues (reinforcing the need to clearly distinguish and separate principled humanitarian action from other aid initiatives)
  • the widening gap between humanitarian needs and the ability to deliver an effective response
  • the decreasing proximity of many humanitarian actors to the people they try to help
  • parties to armed conflicts--including complex webs of armed groups--that in many cases do not respect or accept impartial humanitarian action
  • the ever-present security risks, administrative hurdles, unjustified or arbitrary restrictions and delays for impartial humanitarian action

The Rules of War

The issue of humanitarian access can be extremely contentious, as ongoing debates at the highest political levels have shown. For the ICRC, however, the issue is quite clear. Humanitarian access in armed conflict is regulated by international humanitarian law, the rules of which must be respected by all parties to the conflict, both state and non-state. These rules unambiguously specify that states and other parties to the conflict have primary responsibility for the safety and well-being of populations in territories under their control. Where the basic needs of the population affected by the conflict are not met for whatever reason, the parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction, although the parties retain a right of control.

Departure of ICRC boat called "Humanity" to distribute food aid from Melut, South Sudan [Alessio Romenzi/ICRC]

This means that the offer of humanitarian services by a neutral, impartial and independent organization, such as the ICRC, cannot, and should not, be interpreted as a challenge to a state's sovereignty, nor as recognition or support to any party to the conflict, and the offer cannot be refused on this basis. For the ICRC, it is a critical aspect of our approach to engage with all parties to a conflict, including non-state armed groups, to remind them of their obligations under international humanitarian law and urge them to comply.

One of the most widespread and daunting humanitarian problems arising from violations of this law--at least in terms of numbers--is that of internal displacement. This problem not only affects the many millions of displaced people themselves, but also countless host families and resident communities. The number of internally displaced people worldwide has reached an unprecedented level.

Better respect for international humanitarian law is key to preventing this problem in the first place, as well as protecting people who have been displaced and easing their suffering. Humanitarian law, for example, prohibits the parties from causing the displacement of people except if it is necessary for imperative military reasons or for the protection of the civilians themselves. If there were better respect for the rules prohibiting direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and for those prohibiting indiscriminate means and methods of warfare, to take another example, fewer people would be compelled to flee their homes.

The ICRC considers that explosive weapons with a wide impact area should be avoided in densely populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects and despite the absence of an express legal prohibition against specific types of weapons. States are encouraged to share information on their respective policies, operational practices and lessons learned on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would foster informed discussions on this important humanitarian issue and ideally the development of operational guidance by states.

Ultimately, it all boils down to one thing: regardless of the context and the cause of the fighting, compliance with international humanitarian law is nonnegotiable. The survival of countless vulnerable people may depend on it. Compliance with international humanitarian law provides protection both during armed conflict and after the fighting has ended. Yet, we watch in dismay as parties to conflict continue to flout the very rules that could lay the groundwork for recovery and an eventual return to stability.

All of us have a role to play in improving compliance with international humanitarian law. However, it is ultimately up to states and non-state armed groups to show the political will to translate legal provisions into actual deeds; to turn words into action; and to ensure that the principle of humanity is preserved in the midst of conflict.

[© ICRC]
Knut Dörmann is chief legal officer and head of the Legal Division at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland.
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