Workshop on the rules governing military operations: welcome speech of ICRC vice-president

It is a pleasure to see so many officers from the armed forces of so many States here today. In accepting the invitation of the ICRC and of the Swiss army, you bear witness to your country’s interest in international humanitarian law, and in attending this workshop on the international rules governing military operations, you recognize the need for those rules.

The concept of the workshop may not be new, but there is something special about this year’s event. 2007 is the year we celebrate both the centenary of the Hague Conventions on the conduct of hostilities and the 30th anniversary of the first two Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions, protocols that represented progress in the protection of the victims of armed conflict, both international and non-international.

But there is no point celebrating anniversaries unless we remember what they signify. These rules – known as the law of armed conflict, or international humanitarian law, and based on the need to protect persons hors combat, such as soldiers who are wounded or ill – have expanded to encompass another important element: limiting the suffering of civilians, even during military operations.

 
"... if General Dufour was such a great military leader, it is not only on account of his victories but also and above all because he took to heart the need to limit the effects of combat and to protect civilians against the ravages of war."
 
 

And these rules are needed as much today as they ever were. Civil ians are the main victims of the numerous armed conflicts around the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. This is not the inevitable result of armed conflict. Nothing justifies men, women, children, and old people who have not taken up arms – or combatants who have laid down their arms – being the main victims of these conflicts, or of other situations of violence. Nothing can excuse murder, rape, pillage or humiliating treatment. Nothing.

I always recall that the first president of the society that later became the International Committee of the Red Cross, General Guillaume-Henri Dufour, was a great military leader. And if he was such a great military leader, it is not only on account of his victories but also and above all because he took to heart the need to limit the effects of combat and to protect civilians against the ravages of war.

It is worth quoting his orders for 4 and 5 November 1847, in which he addressed his troops as follows: “Soldiers, you must come out of the combat not only victorious but also without reproach; chroniclers must be able to say of you: they fought valiantly when it was called for, but everywhere they showed themselves humane and generous. I accordingly put children, women, old people and ministers of religion into your safe keeping. Whoever lays hands on a non-combatant person dishonours himself and soils his flag. Prisoners and above all the wounded merit your attention and compassion all the more as you were often with them in the same fields.”

You are here today because you recognize the need to integrate the legal norms governing armed conflict and to translate them into concrete action. These norms include principles fundamental to humanitarian law, such as those of distinction and proportionality, or the prohibition of weapons, projectiles and means and methods of warfare of a nature to cause unnecessary suffering.

The ICRC has long been involved in promoting international humanitarian law, but it was resolution 21 of the 23rd International Conference of the Red Cross, in 1977, that officially recognized and encouraged its role in supporting and advising the armed forces.

Since then, we have worked with many States. Their number has increased every year, and currently the ICRC is supporting efforts to integrate humanitarian law into the armed forces of over 140 countries.

 
"... legal norms must be translated into concrete rules and actions, into orders and mechanisms that every combatant can understand."
 
 

Experience shows that providing teaching and training on humanitarian law is not enough to ensure compliance. Holding dissemination sessions and workshops on the law is no guarantee that combatants will comply with it during hostilities. The heart of the problem resides not in ignorance of the law, but in the translation of knowledge into behaviour. The ICRC has seen this confirmed thousands of times. But that realization does not lead us to conclude that the law is of itself inadequate.

Rather, it acts as a reminder. It reminds us that legal norms must be translated into concrete rules and actions, into orders and mechanisms that every combatant can understand. And for that to happen, we must go further than simply teaching humanitarian law at military academies.

It is against this background that the ICRC has, for several years, been developing the process of what we call the integration of humanitarian law . By this we mean translating general rules into concrete measures, to ensure compliance. To succeed, this integration must be carried out at several levels: it encompasses doctrine, education, training and equipment, and it must be backed up by an effec tive system of sanctions.

For the integration of humanitarian law to succeed – and by “succeed” I mean for it to lead to compliance with humanitarian law in theatres of operations – this process must be undertaken by the armed forces themselves.

It is the armed forces who must acquire the appropriate doctrine, procedures and means, and it is the armed forces who must consciously incorporate the content of the law into their operations. Only by doing so can the armed forces fulfil their legal obligations and prevent breaches of the law from occurring.

It is important to remember that humanitarian law was created and developed for the purpose of regulating the use of force under the exceptional circumstances constituted by armed conflict. The aim of humanitarian law is to protect those who are not participating in hostilities, or have ceased to do so. If we lose sight of this, we open the door to all kinds of abuse. These principles form the basis for specific rules, such as the prohibition of attacks directed at the civilian population, the prohibition of attacks carried out in an indiscriminate manner, or the obligation to take precautions to avoid or reduce loss of civilian life. The rules also prohibit the wounding of civilians and damage to civilian objects, even when they constitute collateral damage.

The integration of humanitarian law is an ongoing process. Not because it is by definition impossible to complete it, but because the application of this branch of the law, and compliance with it, must always be re-assessed in the light of technological innovation and of the political and social changes that influence the lives of communities.

 
"...all parties to a conflict – governmental armed forces, non-State armed groups, security forces, police, paramilitary law enforcement agencies, private military companies – all are required to respect the physical and mental well-being of civilians and of civilian objects."
 
 

Armies will always have to train new personnel, to update their instructors, to remind commanders of their responsibilities and to impose sanctions when the law is broken. Continuing education is not just a matter for civilian society. Like any other organization, an army cannot simply integrate all the various aspects once and for all. Armies change and develop along with the rest of society. Their mission changes in accordance with the needs of the age. Changes in the nature of armed conflict since the adoption of the Additional protocols require us to examine such issues as the effects of new weapons and tactics, or the procedures for holding enemy combatants.

Current conflicts – whether old or new – have disastrous consequences for civilians. The ICRC is working hard to respond to these new challenges. In particular, we have strengthened our relations with NATO and the US armed forces, and those of other military powers, in order to maintain a dialogue with arms bearers. A dialogue based on openness and mutual respect.

The ICRC’s message remains the same, regardless of who we are talking to: all parties to a conflict – governmental armed forces, non-State armed groups, security forces, police, paramilitary law enforcement agencies, private military companies – all are required to respect the physical and mental well-being of civilians and of civilian objects.

And the ICRC is stepping up its efforts to get this message across. That includes holding seminars, workshops like this one, or courses at the San Remo International Institute for Humanitarian Law in Italy, to which we provide financial and technical support.

The ICRC does not merely provide technical training for arms bearers. We also help them to identify the operational measures they should take in order to meet the obligations imposed by humanitarian law, and the implications of such measures. I emphasize that our role is to support and to advise. It is not to substitute ourselves for the armed forces in this domain. It is they who must ensure that humanitarian law is applied in practice, in the field.

That is the relevance of a workshop such as the one at which you will be spending the next two weeks. Knowledge of the rules governing the conduct of military operations must not be limited to a few specialists. If that knowledge is to lead to action, it must be passed on to all personnel with a combat role.

The ICRC and arms bearers have embarked on a dialogue that will develop over the coming years. Humanitarian law must occupy its rightful place in that dialogue if it is to bear fruit.

It will be your job to promote compliance with humanitarian law. And to do so with conviction, because this is an integral part of a soldier’s duty. I thank you in advance for doing so.

I also wish to express my warmest thanks to the Swiss army for helping us organize this event by lending their highly efficient organizational skills.

I shall conclude by encouraging you to talk about your own experiences, to ask your own questions and to raise the dilemmas with which you have been faced in the course of your work. By so doing, you will help to ensure that the coming two weeks are an opportunity to advance the application of international humanitarian law.

Thank you for your attention.