National Committees for the implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL) exist in many countries to advise and assist governments in implementing and spreading knowledge of IHL. Setting up such committees is the responsibility of States, but is supported by the ICRC as one of the means of ensuring effective application of IHL.
At the end of 2011, National Committees for the implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL), or similar bodies, existed in 101 countries. The ICRC encourages the creation of such bodies because they have proved useful in assisting States to fulfil their obligations under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 as well as other IHL instruments.
The Geneva Conventions do not require the creation of such committees. The decision to do so is solely the prerogative of the government concerned. Nor is there a standard format or structure for such committees. As a result, National Committees vary in composition, and in the way they work, from country to country.
To encourage their creation, the ICRC’s Advisory Service on IHL published guiding principles in 1996 based on the outcome of a meeting of experts in Geneva. In 2003 the Advisory Service followed this up with the publication of Practical advice to facilitate the work of National Committees on international humanitarian law.
In the view of the ICRC, National Committees should evaluate national legislation in the light of obligations contained in a range of IHL instruments, in particular the Geneva Conventions themselves and their Additional Protocols.
They should monitor the application of IHL, be able to propose new legislation or amendments to existing law and provide guidance on the interpretation of humanitarian rules.
Committees should also play an important part in promoting wider understanding of IHL, including participation in the training of the armed forces and the teaching of IHL in schools and universities.
The effectiveness of National Committees depends very much on their composition. They need to include people with the necessary expertise. The most obvious members should be representatives of government ministries with a direct interest in IHL such as defence, foreign affairs, internal affairs, justice and education.
In many countries senior members of the judiciary and the armed forces are also members, as are leading academic specialists, representatives of humanitarian organizations and the media.
The national Red Cross or Red Crescent society often has a key role. It may be instrumental in the formation of a National Committee, provide a secretariat for the committee and contribute its expertise through advice and membership. It has a specific role in discussions on the emblems and because of its function as an auxiliary to their authorities in the humanitarian field.
Setting up a permanent committee represents a commitment by government to ensure comprehensive implementation of international humanitarian law. It also recognizes that humanitarian law is constantly evolving as it responds to changes in the nature and conduct of armed conflict.
Although not an obligation under IHL, the creation of a committee can provide an important national reference point on many humanitarian issues.
For the ICRC, working with such committees on a regular basis is a high priority. It is very much a two-way relationship permitting a free exchange of experience and advice. The ICRC also encourages National Committees within the same geographical regional to cooperate with each other and share their expertise.