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Protocols - More effective 25 years later

08-06-2002 Article, International Herald Tribune, by Jakob Kellenberger

The writer is president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

   

 GENEVA Twenty-five years have passed since the adoption on June 8, 1977, of the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions for the protection of victims of war. This anniversary is a good opportunity to assess the legacy of these treaties and to take a broader look at the challenges international humanitarian law faces today.

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The major achievement of the First Protocol was the rules it established on the conduct of hostilities. Among them are the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants, and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.

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Controversial at the time, but much less so today, were the Protocol's innovations regarding combatant and prisoner of war status, devised to address the tactics of guerrilla warfare, and expansion of the definition of international armed conflicts to include wars of self-determination.

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The Second Protocol was the first internat ional treaty devoted exclusively to the protection of persons affected by internal armed conflicts. It represented a milestone in the development of international law. The Protocol gave legal expression to a notion that is widely accepted today - that armed conflicts taking place within the confines of a country are a matter of international concern.

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Over the last 25 years the growing number of states that are parties to both Protocols (160 to Protocol I and 153 to Protocol II), as well the application of their norms by non-party states, has led to the creation of a body of international law based on their provisions.

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The enforcement of the rules of international humanitarian law with respect to individual criminal responsibility has also undergone remarkable changes since the adoption of the two Additional Protocols. After the establishment of ad hoc international criminal tribunals, for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the international community agreed in 1998 to establish the world's first permanent International Criminal Court. In a groundbreaking development, the Court's Statute unequivocally lists acts considered war crimes when committed in non-international armed conflict. Among them are rape and other crimes of sexual violence that have been a constant, but so often unpunished, practice in war.

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These developments serve to illustrate both the resilience and adaptability of international humanitarian law. The question most often asked is whether international humanitarian law is applicable to the new security threats posed by acts of terrorism. The simple answer is that international humanitarian law is the body of law that must be applied whenever the fight against terrorism amounts to or includes armed conflict.

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The challenge ahead for international humanitarian law lies in the political willingness of states and armed opposition groups to fully imp lement its rules. Humanitarian law treaties oblige the High Contracting Parties " to respect and to ensure respect " for their provisions " in all circumstances. " The 25th anniversary of the Additional Protocols is a good moment to restate that pledge.




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