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Arming armies - with law

by Donald Dochard

Soldiers are a special audience. Especially when the subject is how to make sure that waging war is humane.

Napoleon is quoted as having described war as “the business of barbarians”. Although he undoubtedly spoke with some authority on the subject, his view would be sure to rile most military commanders today: the rules that now exist to regulate the means and methods of warfare are a clear indication that current military reasoning is a sophisticated business.

These rules are embodied in various documents, including the Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols and the Hague Conventions and Declarations, and responsibility for enforcing them lies with the States that have forged and signed them.

As “guardian” of these laws, the ICRC is constantly reminding States of their obligations and helping them set up ways to fulfil their duties. Within the ICRC there is a special unit devoted entirely to teaching international humanitarian law to armed forces around the world, spreading awareness of correct military procedure at all levels, from the highest ranking commander right down to the common soldier.




This unit, Dissemination to the Armed Forces (DAF), exists within a broader context of promoting international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles to a whole range of publics, but is singular in its approach. For the military, the ICRC uses a quite distinct “militaryspeak”. The message for the armed forces stresses that soldiers are professional entities carrying out orders for their State and that to do so in an orderly and controlled fashion distinguishes them from a mob and ultimately works in their favour. The appeal to respect, honour and discipline, all of which are part and parcel of military life, is both appropriate and effective.

“The officer who does not comply with the provisions of international humanitarian law is violating legal rules which have been accepted by the highest authorities of his country and which have been incorporated into its domestic legal order,” says Major Paul Muggleton, the ICRC’s dissemination delegate to the armed forces in the Balkans. “By definition, violating the law of war goes against the very grain of the good soldier.”

To make doubly sure that the message is transmitted in the correct terms, all of the ICRC’s delegates to the armed forces are officers themselves.

“Obviously, our ultimate aims are for armed forces to respect civilians, prisoners and the wounded and thereby prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction. We don’t deny that,” says Aleardo Ferretti, Deputy Head of DAF at ICRC headquarters. “But when we present our arguments to armed forces, we avoid the sentimental ‘look at all these poor, innocent victims’ approach, and say rather ‘a professional soldier does things this way’.”

Strategic gain

The image of humanitarians teaching soldiers may indeed seem a contradiction in terms but, surprisingly enough, it makes good military sense. The commander who is a skilful tactician is implicitly respectful of the law of war not least of all because he knows that certain military advantages can be gained from adhering to humanitarian rules. One basic, but essential message of international humanitarian law is that armed forces are duty-bound, in the event of war, to control its development and to avoid a mounting spiral of provocation and reprisals.

ICRC delegates remind high-ranking officers around the world that military operations that violate the law of war strengthen the enemy’s will to resist while, conversely, controlled and purposeful combat is the only way to avoid total chaos. Furthermore, breaking the rules can tarnish the international image of a hopeful victor for years to come.

In his book The Transformation of War1 Martin van Creveld wrote about the law of war:
“Its first and foremost function is to protect
the armed forces them-selves… If armed conflict is to be carried out with any prospect of success, then it must involve the trained cooperation of many men working as a team. Men cannot cooperate, nor can organisations exist, unless they subject themselves to a common code of behaviour.”

“All true military leaders know that abusing civilians will turn them against their soldiers,” says Muggleton. “They also know that if they treat prisoners humanely, their own men taken captive stand a better chance of being treated fairly by the enemy. Once you start using dirty tactics, a nasty, tit-for-tat kind of warfare takes over, extremes of anger and hatred well up
and actions become determined by irra-tional feelings of revenge.”


Crucial timing

Clearly, once war breaks out, there will be little time or inclination for learning how to conduct military operations within the law. Just as the soldier in the field must know exactly how to handle a weapon, he has to know just how to deal with civilians, the wounded, or enemies captured.

The rules have to be learned well in advance of hostilities so that the soldier on the ground, and his superiors giving the orders, react instinctively to any situation in a way that conforms to humanitarian law. This is why it is so important for the teaching of international humanitarian law to be made an integral part of military training in its early stages. The ICRC is therefore helping to introduce DAF training programmes systematically at a national level in a growing number of countries.

The dividends

Is it effective? It can be quite effective — as long as there are soldiers and armies per se. Disturbingly, though, many of today’s fiercest conflicts are being fought by combatants with little or no formal military training. There are an alarming number of cases in which uncontrolled armed elements and even civilians take part in hostilities and it is frequently in such circumstances that the worst atrocities are committed. In these cases, the unleashing of bitter personal enmities is a powerful force that is not held in check by formal military training or a clear chain of command. With traditional armies dissolving, the ICRC faces the challenge of harnessing its imagination and resources and redefining its approach in line with new realities in order to continue to keep alight the humanitarian ideals that were born on a battlefield over a century ago.

1 The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld, The Free Press, New York, 1991.

Donald Dochard
Donald Dochard is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications Division.

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