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A milestone for international humanitarian law

22-09-2006 Statement

When the last two remaining States signed up to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the treaties achieved universal recognition as the principal legal basis for protecting victims of war. But, says the ICRC’s top legal adviser, Jean-Philippe Lavoyer, much remains to be done to achieve universal compliance.

Amid the recent crisis in the Middle East, violence in Sri Lanka and continuing bloodshed in Darfur, there was at least some good news for war victims with the decision by Nauru and Montenegro [* ] to accede to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, that made those treaties the first in modern history to achieve universal acceptance: they have now been formally accepted by all 194 States in the world.
 

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 constitute the fundamental law protecting human life and dignity in time of armed conflict.
 

The universality of the Geneva Conventions is a powerful argument to counter those who insist that international humanitarian law is no longer adequate to deal with contemporary wars. They are wrong.
 
"Humanitarian law remains the most effective legal framework… because it was developed specifically to balance States’ security needs and the need to protect human life and basic rights…" 
 
The fact that all countries are party to the Geneva Conventions means that everyone has now undertaken to respect and to ensure respect for those treaties in all circumstances.
 
International humanitarian law remains the most effective legal framework governing the conduct of hostilities because it was developed specifically to allow for the legitimate security needs of States, on the one hand, and to protect human life and basic rights on the other.
 
It is certainly possible to achieve a balance between the two and the need to do so remains as strong as ever. You can exercise armed control o ver a territory while sparing the civilian population, and you can detain people threatening public order without degrading or humiliating them.
 
Satisfaction over the universal acceptance of the Geneva Conventions should not blind us to the fact that humanitarian law treaties are all too often breached. In particular, the continuing suffering of civilians shows that we are still far from universal compliance with the laws of war.
 
Adhering to the letter of the law is only a first step. Certainly, one of the main weaknesses of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law as a whole is the lack of viable enforcement mechanisms.
 

Respect for the Conventions is primarily the responsibility of the States that have accepted them. More often than not, however, States lack the political will to take concrete action for war victims and to take the measures necessary to prevent, as well as to investigate and punish, violations of the law.
 

So what else can be done to ensure that international humanitarian law prompts protection of and assistance for people suffering because of war?
 

As a first step, States must see to it that those who need to be familiar with international humanitarian law – particularly their armed and security forces – are instructed in it and trained to apply it in real-life armed conflict. At the same time, governments must set up the legal framework and the procedures needed to comply with the many rules of humanitarian law.
 

The recent creation of the International Criminal Court has raised hopes that States will ensure prosecution of those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law, thus boosting the universal fight against impunity.
 
While only States are in a position to take the required legislative, administrative and practical measures in their domestic legal orders, it is important to point out that international humanitarian law is also binding on non-State armed groups participating in armed conflict.
 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will persevere in its efforts to make international humanitarian law better known and respected all over the world. For the international community as a whole, universal acceptance of the Geneva Conventions should be a timely reminder of just how much more needs to be done to achieve universal compliance.

 *   Accession by Nauru on 27 June 2006, by Montenegro on 2 August 2006