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Workshop on the rules governing military operations - welcome speech of ICRC President

06-11-2008 Statement

Speech by Mr Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Workshop for senior officers on the rules governing military operations, Opening session, Geneva, 3 November

Mr President of the State Council,

Distinguished guests and participants,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to see so many of you here today and would like to extend a warm welcome to you all. I am particularly delighted that so many officers are present – as is evident from the wide range of uniforms. Last year a large number of you also took up the invitation extended by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss army. That leads me to conclude that the subject of this workshop is of very particular interest to senior officers.

In 2007 we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Hague Conventions on the conduct of hostilities and the thirtieth anniversary of the two first Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions, which marked a significant step forward in the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts. Today, that protection is needed more than ever before. The number of civilians killed in conflicts has not stopped growing since the Second World War.

Without being fatalistic, it needs to be acknowledged that that trend has little chance of stabilizing in the years ahead. The world and exchanges have become more complex and international relations have polarized again. A large number of armed conflicts continue to afflict our planet. In the international context, troops operating under various mandates have taken part in a number of operations. At the same time, public opinion on all continents is becoming increasingly reluctant to tolerate what is referred to as “collateral damage”.

The officers here today have come from more than 40 countries t hroughout the world; your respective States have adhered to various legal instruments including the Geneva Conventions and, in doing so, have undertaken to respect them. Regardless of whether they are considered to pertain to the law of armed conflicts or to international humanitarian law, those sets of rules were established in order to limit the suffering of civilians, including during actual military operations, and to guarantee protection for combatants who are hors de combat.

This is where this workshop comes into its own. As you are aware, the reality of conflict lies somewhere between the texts and the situations that they describe – and reveals man at his worst and his best.

Military operations do not condone lack of foresight. To be effective, they have to obey a certain number of rules dictated by experience and reflection. Failure to adhere to those rules can lead to disaster. That is, inevitably, where the question of responsibility comes in.

Operations do not simply happen. They are the outcome of causes, and those responsible for the operations must take many precautions. The same can be said of the law: if it is not enforced, men, women and children who are not taking part, or who have ceased to take part, in the fighting will suffer. The issue is still that of responsibility.

Learning the law, understanding it and translating it into practical mechanisms or specific acts in the field are all part of the process of integration. However, without collective and individual responsibility and without a strong chain of command, the outcome will not be conclusive.

If the armed forces take greater account of the rules governing military operations and show greater concern for international humanitarian law, they will be better equipped to incorporate it into practice and to enforce it. This merely requires them to fulfil their obligations. However, those who make it a point of honour to do so meticulously earn greater legitimacy and respect.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is always risky to bring out a second edition. After the initial discovery, subsequent editions risk becoming routine. That risk can be easily avoided if the support of a fundamentally powerful agent is enlisted: commitment. That is what this meeting is all about.

The ICRC has set itself the task – with the vital support of the Swiss army – of preparing an international course for senior officers, the aim being to encourage the armed forces to make it part of their own training programmes. Our goal is for them to appropriate the subject of this workshop and to go one step further by considering the possibility of holding the course in their home countries – following the example of France, which will be the first country after Switzerland to host it in 2009.

Today we are in no doubt that for the law to be successfully integrated and enforced those tasks must be carried out by the armed forces themselves. It is up to them to provide the human and material means of achieving that end. It involves incorporating the law into doctrine, education and training. Moreover, if the aim is truly to get to the bottom of this lengthy process, it is essential to set up a well-functioning system of sanctions. That is the only way that the everyday tasks will bear fruit.

The ICRC is not merely willing to support your efforts and those of your armies; it is determined to do so. It has already been investing substantial resources to that end for decades. It plans to continue its support, which has been stepped up markedly in recent years. Evidence of that is the dialogue that we have established with 162 armed forces throughout the world. That dialogue is often fruitful and always necessary, and a constantly growing number of parties are taking part.

That dialogue finds its justification and assumes its true relevance in the main scenes of operation across the planet where the ICRC is at work: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Chad, Israel, autonomous and occupied territories, Colombia, the Philippines or Sri Lanka. Wherever it is, the ICRC takes the opportunity to strengthen its dialogue with the US and NATO armed forces as well as with the wide range of other armed forces from Africa, Latin America or Asia.

We do not overlook the other weapons bearers. Whenever security permits, we establish contact with non-State armed groups. That is not without risk, but the ICRC’s aim is to maintain and develop relations with all parties to a conflict. We encourage them to do their best to take all provisions of the law on board and to comply with them.

As long as a party is willing to engage in dialogue, it will not be turned away. It is that channel which gives access to conflict victims and makes it possible to save lives. The ICRC does not work for or against a party; rather, its desire is to engage in dialogue with all those involved in a conflict. The only direct beneficiaries of the ICRC are the conflict victims wherever they are.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you are aware, the best known of the Fundamental Principles of the Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent are neutrality and independence, and what I have just said about dialogue illustrates the point perfectly. However, the principle of humanity is no less vital, even if we place less emphasis on it as it seems obvious to us. However, a battlefield is hardly the best place to promote a sense of humanity. That sense must be preserved and extended; respect for the applicable rules is not merely a legal imperative – it also guarantees human dignity.

That is why, at this time of socio-economic and politico-military uncertainty which may well lead to all kinds of upheavals such as mass immigration, outbreaks of ethnic or sectarian violence and nationalistic claims, the ICRC is endeavouring to improve prevention of violations of the law during armed conflicts. It is a huge task which can scarcely be achieved unless the States and their bearers of weapons are willing to cooperate. Every conflict gives rise to atrocities, displaced persons, combatants who are killed or wounded, hunger and deprivation; unfortunately, we know that will not change, and the ICRC and others are trying to provide assistance and protection for those in need.

While those situations are not going to disappear, they can be alleviated by preventing violations of the rules of humanitarian law. The best way to prevent violations during armed conflicts or other situations of violence is to convince those in charge of field operations that it is always possible to manage them better. To that end there are rules of conduct and of engagement and a framework of constraint which is to be respected although it does not rule out military necessity, which is justified in certain circumstances.

During the two weeks of this workshop you will be looking at those difficult issues; you will tackle a number of sensitive subjects and you will be faced with dilemmas. You will ultimately discuss the best way of incorporating the law into current training programmes and military operations. As your predecessors last year, you will share your experience and, like them, I hope that you will come to appreciate the relevance of the law of armed conflicts and the applicable human rights standards which constitute the basic legal framework for the conduct of military operations in a range of different situations.

Recognizing the value of those standards is a key first step. Yet once those theoretical provisions have been accepted, they need to be made compatible with the demands of military operations. This transposition or translation work is vital. It introduces a key element into the experience of modern conflicts – that of limitations imposed by reason and the law.

This is, of course, nothing new, and soldiers or civilians who have suffered or are suffering directly from the violence associated with conflicts may have doubts about the limitations that are supposed to protect them – we understand how they feel. It is nonetheless our common task to make those limitations effective and real, a task that needs to be repeated constantly with determination.

The ICRC is constantly called upon to meet members of the military forces at various scenes of operation. Perhaps some of them are here today. You will be aware that, within the framework of their mandate, our delegates take their mission to heart – just as the armed forces do in fulfilling their own mandate. The concept of service which is the cornerstone of humanitarian and military institutions favours common understandings but also clearly draws the boundary lines. Without being impervious to each other, those particular fields of activity have different ultimate objectives. We should not forget that.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino between the Franco-Sardinian forces headed by Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II and the Austrian troops of Emperor Francis-Joseph. An indirect outcome of that battle was the Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the codification of humanitarian law. It was a battle which left thousands dead in just one day.

We therefore have another anniversary to observe but most of all it is a prime opportunity to recall that, 150 years after Solferino, the protection of those who are not or no longer taking part in the hostilities remains a high ly topical issue.

It is also an opportunity to remind all parties of their obligations and of the duty of humanity, without which the right for human beings to be treated with dignity will be ignored.

I would like to thank you for your commitment to that