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Protecting life and dignity: "No war is above international law"

19-05-2004 Article, Financial Times, by Jakob Kellenberger

Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president, says the organization condemns indiscriminate terrorist attacks unreservedly, but insists that the response to them must remain within the framework of the law. Article published in the Financial Times (UK) on 19 May 2004 and reproduced here with the FT's kind permission.

Events in Iraq and other recent armed conflicts have time and again reminded us that the essential dignity of human beings is often among the first casualties of war. Numerous offences are committed against civilians, wounded and sick combatants and those deprived of their liberty in armed conflicts around the world. This happens despite the fact that there is almost universal support for the Geneva Conventions, the treaties at the heart of international humanitarian law that oblige all parties to a conflict to protect the life and dignity of persons not or no longer fighting. The shocking events concerning detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are unfortunately but one example of the violation of these laws and the values they embody.

 
These laws were specifically designed to take account of both the legitimate security needs of states and the obligation to protect human life and basic rights. The ICRC is convinced that it is possible to achieve a balance between the two. 
 

To tackle violations of international humanitarian law committed in armed conflicts, simply paying lip service to the protection of human life and dignity is not enough. It is disturbing to note how often violations of international humanitarian law are shrugged off as " collateral damage " an appalling term when applied to human beings - or blithely justified as apparently unavoidable results of the quest for security. Frequently, commitments by governments, armies, rebel groups and other organisations to observe the principles of humanitarian law are nothing but empty rhetoric designed to cover up violations of those laws.

Yet, these laws were specifically designed to take account of both the legitimate security needs of states and the obligation to protect human life and basic rights. The ICRC is convinced that it is possible to achieve a balance between the two. One can control a territory while respecting its population, and one can detain those threatening public order while respecting their physical and spiritual integrity and without degrading or humiliating them.

The fact that the ICRC works in full independence from states and other actors allows it to credibly monitor to what extent they respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. The ICRC looks into alleged violations of such laws in places of detention and reports them to the responsible authorities, suggesting changes or demanding improvements where necessary. Its direct and confidential contacts with authorities enable the ICRC to regularly and repeatedly visit prisons and detention camps and thereby directly help prisoners whose rights may have been violated. Last year, ICRC delegates visited nearly 470,000 detainees in 80 countries, most of them far away from the media spotlight.

 
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on America in 2001, acts intended to spread terror among civilians and the measures taken to stop them have taken on a new dimension. 
 

As I write this, our teams in Iraq are continuing to visit detainees held by the Coalition forces, always with a view to ensuring respect for the life and rights of those deprived of their liberty. 

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on America in 2001, acts intended to spread terror among civilians and the measures taken to stop them have taken on a ne w dimension. Terrorist acts that indiscriminately target and massacre civilians are a direct negation of the fundamental values at the heart of international law. The ICRC condemns such crimes without reservation. It also insists that the response to them must be carried out within the limits set by international law. When the fight against terror amounts to an armed conflict, states are obliged to observe the principles of international humanitarian law even when their security is at stake. This means that people deprived of their liberty cannot be detained and interrogated outside of an appropriate legal framework.

Some commentators seem to think that the threat of terrorism justifies a weakening of international law. They argue that the law should primarily serve the security needs of states, and that the legal protection of people against abuses of their dignity needs to be watered down in order to stop terrorist acts. I disagree. Any body of law must be continuously reassessed and developed to ensure its continued relevance. International humanitarian law is no exception; the ICRC is involved in discussions with governments and experts to ensure that it remains relevant. However, we will never accept a weakening of the legal provisions safeguarding the rights of people caught up in armed conflicts.

The struggle against terrorism can only be legitimate as long as it does not undermine basic values shared by humanity. The right to life and to protection against murder, torture and degrading treatment must be at the heart of the actions of all those involved in this struggle. This fight will lose credibility if it is used to justify acts otherwise considered unacceptable, such as the killing of people not participating in hostilities.

The world should not need any photographs of torture and ill treatment of prisoners to remember that the protection of human life and dignity is everyone's concern and requires action.




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