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International humanitarian law : from the hopes of 1899 to the challenges of 1999

18-05-1999 Statement

Centennial of The First International Peace Conference, The Hague, 18 and 19 May 1999. Statement by Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC.

No one has failed to notice how our world is trembling with upheaval as it approaches the end of the century: the geostrategic landscape is being reshaped; new powers are emerging; there is a technological revolution under way that is as rife with danger as it is rich with promise; we face huge ecological and demographic challenges, and we see poverty and faltering economic development in so many countries. These upheavals result in social crisis and breakdown that often spill over into spontaneous acts of violence and even armed conflict. Their origins are diverse, some as old as humanity itself: the way in which natural resources are distributed, access to water, access to land, and fear of people who are different in ways that we do not understand or that we perceive — often wrongly — as a threat.

The title of this talk, International Humanitarian Law: From the Hopes of 1899 to the Challenges of 1999 , could equally well have been " from the challenges of 1899 to the hopes of 1999 " . Mankind owes a great deal to those who laid the groundwork for a set of international rules limiting the violence of armed conflict. They took up the challenge, and people today striving to bring about greater respect for human dignity should draw hope from their determination.

Let us not forget that there was growing alarm in the 1860s as people became aware that a combination of rabid nationalism and the use of scientific progress for military purposes was resulting in an arms race. This trend caused great worry at the time; it harboured a potential that no one could truly imagine but of which everyone had a foreboding. Such was the climate as the century drew to an end and the Hague Conference took its decisive step in codifying rules to mitigate the effects of war. The Conference's impact on the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement deserves emphasis, particularly in two respects. One is protection for prisoners of war. The other is the role of relief societies. When all is said and done, the disarray prevailing at the end of the 19th century produced initiatives that have greatly benefited those affected by the wars of the 20th century.

The end of our century is attended by human tragedies alas so numerous that it would be impossible to draw up a complete list. There is large-scale suffering due to violence in Africa — in the Great Lakes region, in the Horn, in Algeria — and in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Colombia and countless other places. In all cases it preys on people whose only " crime " is to be civilians, and this despite the fact that the very status of civilian affords them protection under international humanitarian law. Women are specifically targeted in order to terrorize and humiliate them or because they carry within them the hope of new life, which it has been decided in certain circles should be erased. (Yet frequently these same women, as soon as hostilities are over, show unimaginable ingenuity in finding ways to come to the aid of those among them who have been raped, in adopting orphans and bringing them up in an environment full of love, and in taking care of the elderly.) Children — even extremely young children — are recruited as combatants and as executioners. This robs them forever of their childhood and condemns them to spend the rest of their lives branded with a guilt that was thrust upon them. And then there are the elderly – so often forgotten in these conflicts – w hose twilight years ought to be lived out with a measure of dignity but who, instead, often remain alone in the family house because their tired old legs prevent them from fleeing with the others, or simply because they were unwilling to leave their homes. They remain in the illusory hope that they will be able to ward off the plunderers and protect their property and, above all, the property of their children. When the combatants arrive, these old people are executed or held for ransom. Even if they avoid that fate, they remain helplessly exposed to the rigours of age and often die alone, for lack of care and because they no longer have the strength to struggle on. Who does not feel outrage at enormities such as this?

For ICRC staff it is every bit as hard to bear the sight of human wrecks jammed into airless prisons where they barely have room to move – left there without care, vulnerable to all manner of aggression, not knowing what awaits them or even what crime they are accused of. And the combatant himself — whether he volunteered to fight or was dragged into the conflict against his will — becomes, once he falls into enemy hands, a target for the aggressive impulses of his captures; he is at their mercy. Even if he is spared violence itself, he may not be so lucky when it comes to hunger, thirst, tuberculosis and simple despair. The fact that he is visited by an ICRC delegate often means the difference between life and death, or at least between naked survival and living conditions that go some way to respecting his dignity as a human being.

And where, I hear you ask, is international law in all of this? Forgotten? Unrecognized? Being made a mockery of? Well, that is not necessarily wrong. Indeed, those responsible for implementing the law are frequently unaware of its content and sometimes its very existence. Even the best-known rules are violated under the influence of fear, hatred, hunger or ideological blindness . To make matters worse, there are certain types of war to which international humanitarian law is particularly difficult to apply. These are conflicts aimed at asserting group identity and conflicts in countries in which State structures have collapsed. Finally, if humanitarian law is not translated into terms and modes of communication that will reach both the hearts and minds of those to whom it is addressed, it may be perceived by them as a foreign import, regardless of its universality.

Is humanitarian law well adapted to contemporary warfare? That is a question that will arise time and again as conflict changes. It is a question that in the past has prompted substantial improvements in the body of rules that govern the conduct of hostilities and protect those affected by armed conflict. Thus, on 30 July 1998 the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons entered into force as did, on 1 March 1999, the so-called Ottawa treaty, that is, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel mines and on their Destruction. Even more recently, a protocol additional to the Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property was adopted. These examples demonstrate the dynamism of international humanitarian law. And it is a dynamism that will continue.

The fact that this law is violated does nothing to diminish its value. No legal provision escapes transgression, and when it is respected we rarely notice. Moreover universally recognized standards must not be lowered on the grounds that human folly in the heat of battle leads to grievous excesses. Nor can those standards be constantly raised, for they would risk being viewed as totally out of touch with the realities of war. A balance must therefore be struck.

To enable international humanitarian law to more fully play the role assigned to it, it is of course necessary to know that la w, and to ensure that it is known by others. Every soldier must receive instruction in the art of war, and that art — if I may be allowed to use such a term — must not consist only of strategy, tactics and the use of weapons. As for the others engaged in armed violence today — young members of militias and paramilitary forces, smugglers, etc. — the challenge at present is to cultivate in them a humanitarian reflex. This demands that different measures be taken, for example by referring to local traditions, calling on influential and respected community leaders and appealing to artists and entertainers — in theatre or circus, for example — to prompt people to think about the problem.

Making use of national or international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court as a means of repressing violations of international humanitarian law is another major initiative. That reflects the will to do two things: to ensure that crimes do not go unpunished when they are so grave that society would be unable to come to terms with them as a result, and also to dissuade potential criminals from committing similar acts. Post-conflict societies find themselves before a dilemma as formidable as it is subtle. They face a choice, when hostilities cease, between amnesty in the name of reconciliation and punishing crimes as a means of enabling those who have suffered to get over the past in order to face the future. There are cases in which this choice is by no means easy for those who must build that future.

When all is said and done, the international community is equipped with a body of law that develops according to existing needs. It is also equipped with the means to prevent and repress violations of that law. Is this sufficient? How can we reply affirmatively to such a question when we see the tragic images that illustrate today's conflicts? Have we come to a point where we have no option but to sink into discouragement and f atalism? Most certainly not. For today — just as in 1899 — there are reasons for hope. I see three such reasons. One is the conduct of many belligerents, who respect international humanitarian law. Another is the impressive mobilization under way within civil society to bring about greater respect for human rights and humanitarian law. Still another is the ability of young people – some young people in any case – to succeed where others have failed. I think for example of young members of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other organizations around the world who, whether consciously or not, defend the principles of humanitarian law, though they would express them in non-legal terms: non-discrimination, respect for the dignity, convictions and customs of others, and simply doing what one can for those more vulnerable than oneself, for those in need.

If I have one wish to express as a new millennium dawns, it is that we not leave the task of resisting the scourge of war and limiting its violence to the politicians, to the military, to the humanitarian organizations, to the lawyers or to any others whose place of work is on the battlefield or on its sidelines. Rather I would wish to see this endeavour become everyone's concern: psychologists studying the mechanisms that determine human behaviour in wartime; ministers of religion and other spiritual leaders using their teachings to make the principle of humanity shine out more brightly than it ever has; the media prompting people to think deeply; business leaders helping ensure that economic activity promotes development rather than causing social instability and the pauperization of those who have been left out; scientists striving to prevent their knowledge from being misused for war-like purposes and, instead, working towards solutions for the global challenges of tomorrow; and intellectuals, finally, doing everything possible to ensure that their thought inspires practical action. May the endeavour to stop the scourge of war and violence in all its cruel forms also, and above all, become the concern of parents who bear the weighty responsibility of preparing young people for the world to come. This is the challenge facing all of us; this is the challenge facing each of us. The next millennium will be what we make of it!

Ref. EXSO 99.05.14-ENG