More Than 150 Years of Humanitarian Action and Law: What are the Challenges?

On 22 August 1864, only a year after the creation of the International Red Cross Movement, a new event marks the beginning of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Twelve States signed a Treaty establishing the obligation to spare and protect wounded soldiers and the people and equipment involved in their care during war times. The first Geneva Convention was born.

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The inner circle of IHL are the three Geneva Conventions that were extensively revised in 1949 and relate to the treatment of prisoners of war and the immunity of medical personnel on the battlefield. The fourth Convention was also added, and stipulates that warring parties have the obligation to protect civilians. This text was born out of the World War II and its horrific atrocities, including not only concentration camps but indiscriminate bombings of civilian cities and the deliberate starving of others. Now, 194 States have ratified them and thus have become international customary law.

The main current challenge for IHL is implementation, since in modern wars civilians are not only collateral damage but the main victims, subject to different forms of warfare. More than 90% of victims of modern wars are civilians, including those who die, but also those subject to forced displacement, mutilations and hunger and disease as a result of a war.

Although the Conventions clearly state that all precautions should be taken to save civilian lives and property (and infrastructure essential for survival), and this provision applies to all parties on a conflict, the reality is often very different. Different warring parties in conflict (be them State or non-State actors) continue to attack civilians without due respect for the obligations under IHL.

Modern conflicts have extremely complicated the application of Law. Frequently they are diffuse and chronic phenomenon of violence that last over time. At times they are not fought between two identifiable armies dressed in uniform but by a variety of groups with different aims and that can include informal militias and criminal gangs.

The two additional Protocols to the Conventions make these provisions applicable for internal as well as interstate wars. But there is a higher degree in difficulty when humanitarians like the International Committee of the Red Cross must remind their obligations under IHL to informal groups with no clear political aims and no command-and-control lines of authority.

There is a growing debate about the feasibility of IHL for modern conflicts. This is a growing and worrying trend since doubts come not only from non-conventional armed actors (such as organized crime groups) but also on the part of some international power. The US under the ‘war on terror’ put in place a series of practices and doctrines that are at odds with IHL, causing great damage to the validity of those instruments and even raising doubts about their applicability in this ‘new type of war’.

However, according to the ICRC the question is not validity since this is ensured, but how to enforce those rules and make the breakers accountable. One has to remember here that the Red Cross Movement is not just an NGO but an international organization and also the guardian of the Conventions. What is at stake, the ICRC recognizes, is how to enforce humanitarian principles like the protection of civilians in current armed conflicts.

If you wish to know more about IHL I recommend this webpage, where you can find the main instruments, actors and objectives.