Beware, the Geneva Conventions are under fire
14-07-1999 Article, International Herald Tribune
The writer, director for international law and communication for the International Committee of the Red Cross, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune. Published on 14 July 1999.
GENEVA - Are we moving toward a radical challenge to the 50-year-old set of Geneva conventions, or toward a reaffirmation of their universal validity? Two major questions arise in this regard.
The first is that of'' just war.''
This age-old concept originally set certain rules for wars between Christians, but none for operations launched against'' the infidel " .'Translated for today's world, it would tend to exempt action such as that taken by NATO in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from any obligation under international humanitarian law, simply because the cause being upheld was legitimate.
Let it be said at once that such an approach is dangerous, and would annihilate all the efforts made to build up international humanitarian law.
The body of law endeavors precisely to ensure that certain elementary humanitarian rules are respected during conflicts, which obviously implies that each side incurs the same obligations. Trying to release oneself from such an obligation would inevitably mean a return to barbarity.
The second question concerns the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. How can we define military advantage when the aim of the operation is to weaken the enemy so as to make him surrender? What exactly is meant by the notions of military objective, indiscriminate bombing, precautions when attacking, and proportionality between military adv antage and collateral civilian losses?
These queries show the complexity of this part of international humanitarian law. It is clear that there is a need to extend the dialogue with the military in order to clarify more precisely the limits of what is acceptable.
But the Balkan crisis also prompts reflection on the way humanitarian players contribute to implementation of the Geneva conventions in providing humanitarian assistance.
The work of humanitarian organizations hinges on the acceptability of their activities. These organizations cannot impose their services. In most cases, efforts at persuasion succeed in getting a certain amount of aid accepted. In cases where these efforts remain fruitless, it is then up to states, notably within the framework of the Security Council, to assess the situation and take emergency measures.
The possibility of a military-cum-humanitarian approach, then, or military action incorporating a humanitarian component, cannot be ruled out. Is this the solution for the future? Some people think so.
But this is an illusion because of the human and financial cost of such operations, as well as for obvious geopolitical reasons. The conflict in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is, alas, only one among about 30 today, many of which are on a larger scale.
Persuasion based on refraining from making any judgment as to the origin of the conflict, and action inspired by the elementary principles of humanitarian law - the distinction between combatants and civilians, treatment for the wounded, respect for the physical integrity and dignity of detainees, aid for populations lacking the bare necessities - all this will remain, for many years to come, the only way to conduct humanitarian operations in most situations of armed conflict.
The 50th anniversary next month of the 1949 Geneva Conventions offers an opportunity for highlighting the essential values on which these texts are founded - compassion for those in distress, respect for human dignity, solidarity. These values, which were recognized as universal in 1949, are still vital for setting certain limits on armed conflict and for preparing a return to true peace.