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
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
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’.”
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.”
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
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.
The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld, The
Free Press, New York, 1991.
Donald Dochard is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications
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