27th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Even wars have limits

The Geneva Conventions are 50 years old this year, a worthy anniversary, but the origins of humanitarian law are far more ancient. The notion that certain codes of honour should be respected on the battlefield go back thousands of years and are reflected in many diverse cultures and traditions.

In 1949, still reeling from the horrors of World War II, States agreed to revise the existing Conventions to include important provisions to protect civilians. The four Conventions now form one of the most widely ratified international treaties in existence. In 1977 two Additional Protocols were added to provide better protection for populations during hostilities of an international nature and in situations arising from internal conflicts.

Knowing how you can and can't behave in war is as integral a part of military training as learning how to handle a gun.

Traditionally, the promotion of humanitarian law - or the law of armed conflict, as it is also known - has been based on the premise that parties to a conflict can be reached and influenced through a clear chain of command. Given that this is no longer the case in many conflicts, and that many new types of combatants are now complicating the picture, two dilemmas urgently need to be addressed: how to impose legal or moral restraints in situations where the basic distinction between soldiers and civilians is challenged, and how to regulate hostilities in situations where everyone has ready access to a weapon.

There are no quick and easy answers. Calling for new rules or revising old ones will solve nothing. The solutions lie rather in adapting the existing rules, implementing them and making them acceptable to all who play a part in armed violence.

Making the limits known

States have a legal obligation to ensure that their armed, security and police forces receive training in the law of armed conflict at all levels of the chain of command. The ICRC, with the support of the National Societies, is on hand to give them all the help they need in this respect. Besides the armed and security forces of individual States, target groups include all the key players in present-day conflicts, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) and forces involved in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Military consultants, private security firms, militias and other arms-bearing groups need to be made aware that the rules of warfare also apply to them.

The obligation to "respect and ensure respect" for humanitarian law concerns not just States and soldiers, but civil society and the whole community too. One way of increasing awareness of the limits of war is to create a bridge between the law and local traditions. In Somalia, a study into traditional ways of sorting out differences has helped to develop messages accessible to Somali audiences. A similar exercise has been carried out in Guatemala based on Mayan traditions. Innovative communication methods have also been tried, such as theatre and circus. In Liberia and Colombia, parallels have been drawn between the rules of soccer and the rules of war.

To mark the Geneva Conventions' anniversary and to gauge people's knowledge of and feelings about humanitarian law, the ICRC carried out a wide-ranging consultation in some 18 countries as part of its "People on War" project. In the process, thousands of people were asked to share their personal experiences of conflict and their views on the limits of warfare. The ICRC will also be presenting at the Conference a progress report on the study it is coordinating worldwide on customary law. The study aims to identify where current recognized practices can usefully complete written law and treaties.

Enforcing the limits

While most countries have adhered to humanitarian law treaties, the corresponding national legislation is often weak or underdeveloped and sometimes even non-existent'since its inception in 1995, the ICRC Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law has made contact with representatives of over 100 countries and assisted in setting up some 45 national committees to advise governments on developing the necessary domestic legislation. The long-term objective is to ensure that all States have laws in place that truly reflect the commitments they have made at international level.

One priority is the national repression of war crimes. The ad hoc international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were important steps in ending the reign of impunity. The Diplomatic Conference held in Rome in July 1998 went further still and adopted a new convention on the establishment of an International Criminal Court. This organ is not intended to take over jurisdiction exercised by national courts. If a State does not wish to surrender a person for trial in an international forum, it should itself develop the relevant legislation to try the person at national level.

If the people who are tempted to violate humanitarian principles during conflict know that they will not be allowed to get away with their crimes, they may think twice before committing them. And measures to ensure that they are brought to justice if they do will help to heal the wounds once the fighting is over.

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A formidable challenge

Putting ideas into practice

A conference with a difference

Even wars have limits

No good or bad victims

Weapons: the humanitarian perspective

Disasters have no limits

Fine tuning the response

The worldwide health crisis

A role to develop

Shared principles