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Workshop on the rules governing military operations: welcome speech of the General Chief of Staff of the Swiss Army

06-08-2007 Statement

The following speech was given by Christophe Keckeis, the General Chief of Staff of the Swiss Army, at the opening of the Senior Workshop on International Rules governing Military Operations (SWIRMO), Geneva, 6-17 August 2007.

Mr. President, Excellencies, officers and dear guests

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you here in Les Vernets barracks in the beautiful Canton and City of Geneva, our Swiss window to the world.

Geneva has a long and uncontested tradition to host important international events and organizations, especially the ones related to the international law of armed conflict and to human rights.

The Swiss Armed Forces are part of this tradition:

  • the first President and founding member of the International Red Cross was also our first Commander in Chief, General Guillhaume Henri Dufour;

  • In the Winter of 1871, the internment of a defeated French Army (about 40'000 men) in the Swiss Jura mountains, led by General Herzog was an enormous humanitarian challenge at that time;

  • and, 30 years ago, the creation of the well known Sanremo courses for military officers on the law of armed conflict by Col GS Frederic De Mulinen paved the way for a more practical teaching of the law of war for military personnel.

I was therefore happy to accept the offer of the ICRC to host this new workshop for senior military officers. On behalf of the Swiss government, let me thank you for having accepted our invitation.

I am fully aware of the fact that each nation participating in this S enior W orkshop on I nternational R ules governing M ilitary O perations (SWIRMO) is facing different dilemmas and security challenges. Western Europe is not Africa, Latin America is not Asia.

The dangers we are today facing in the world are manifold:

  • Poverty and unequal access to resources may lead to struggles for decreasing resources.

  • Extremism of all nature (political, religious, ethnic or racial) may cause unrest, armed violence and terrorism.

  • Absence of law and failing State institutions may lead to chaos.

In a globalized environment, it is no longer possible to look away.

Your problems become our problems, and vice versa. The role of armed and security forces is rapidly evolving.

Many of us have or will participate in Peace Operations.

Some of us fulfil tasks in internal security missions.

Some have gained experience in armed conflict.

Our ability to cooperate with civilian partners within our nations or with foreign military or civilian partners in multinational operations has become a key issue.

Armed forces were established for traditional defence functions against foreign military threats. Now, they are used in a wider sense in order to produce stability and security for the population. The appropriate use of force is therefore a central issue in all modern military operations:

  • Too much force might provoke further violence and contribute to mission failure.

  • Not enough force will result in casualties among our own ranks but also among those we wanted to protect, the civilians.

Common standards, reflected in clear rules of engagement, are one precondition for success.

I firmly believe that the ICRC has rightly put forward this issue as a central subject of this workshop.

SWIRMO will address the rules governing the use of force by State actors, be they armed forces or police. You will gain insight in the legal framework which encompasses different strategic situations: From classical inter-State war to law enforcement activities, including peace support operations.

But you will also discuss the problems arising in a situation, where the opponent is neither willing nor able to play by the rules. What shall be done then? How does it affect our course of action and our conduct of operations?

I invite you to share your personal experiences and insights with your class leaders. I invite you to have frank and open discussions, in the spirit of professional military officers we all are.

Be curious, but remain sensitive. Some issues will remain controversial. This is not weakness of SWIRMO, it belongs to its strengths. We need to address the issues openly. This will allow us to search for practical solutions and to gain new insights.

Generals, officers, let me address one key issue relating to the law of armed conflict and human rights. We all know that rules exist, that most of them are part of common sense. Our education and our traditions oblige us. And still we are at times faced with misconduct of troops and leaders due to insufficient implementation of those rules.

  • Partly, because they are not known.

But also, and here lies the challenge for us as senior leaders:

  • Partly, because they are neither obeyed nor imposed by our officers and soldiers in due time and in due manner.

How can this be changed? A first step could be this workshop.

All of you are holding important positions within your armed for ces, that's why you have been selected to participate in this workshop.

SWIRMO shall not only deal with the rules themselves. It is to provide you with ideas and valid concepts for implementation of both, the law of armed conflict and applicable norms and standards of human rights in doctrine and training of military personnel.

SWIRMO is therefore only the starting point. Our common endeavour will succeed, if we manage to transfer some of the points we learned in our national environments.

Dear Participants: I wish you an inspiring learning atmosphere. May your discussions in and outside the classrooms be influenced by the famous spirit of Geneva. You are here on neutral grounds and you may speak in your personal capacity. Make good use of that freedom.

You will have the opportunity to see Switzerland and the Swiss Armed Forces at work during a special day. I hope that you will enjoy our hospitality and that you will bring home rich memories.

Thank you very much.