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Does international humanitarian law still stand a chance ?

01-08-1999by Dietmar Klenner

Reflections on instruction and training for the military and armed groups and on the role of the International Red Cross (ICRC), on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions in August 1999.

 A. The challenge  

Through that branch of international law known as international humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict (LOAC), the international community seeks to mitigate the horrors of war. Humanitarian law protects combatants no longer able to take part in the fighting (for example the wounded, sick and shipwrecked and prisoners of war), persons not taking part in the conflict, such as civilians, and even civilian objects such as cultural and private property. It prohibits or restricts the use of certain weapons and obliges military commanders to observe certain rules relating to the methods of warfare. It also lays down rules governing the relationship between States engaged in armed conflict.

The core treaties of international humanitarian law are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. 12 August 1999 marks the 50th anniversary of those Conventions, which have been ratified to date by 188 States. One would think this was an event to celebrate, yet a sober look at what has happened on the world's battlefields since the Second World War is more likely to be cause for dismay. True, the rules of international humanitarian law were by and large observed in " traditional " or " conventional " wars such as those fought in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, on the Falklands/Malvinas and in the Gulf region, and in spite of a number of horrendous exceptions, international humanitarian law did protect thousands of victims of these conflicts. The face of the modern battlefield, however, has undergone a fundamental change.

Somewhere in Europe, soldiers belonging to an international for ce continue to discover new mass graves, the results of barely imaginable ethnic cleansing operations. In another conflict, guerilla fighters routinely mutilated civilians, sometimes even children. Another report shows children hacking with knives at enemy corpses. One of them triumphantly holds up the intestines of a fallen soldier, in full view of the camera. Barbarity without end at the end of the 20th century?

One especially disturbing trend emerging from today's predominantly internal armed conflicts is that, according to expert estimates, between 80 and 90 per cent of the victims of modern wars are civilians. On 12 February 1999 the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga, speaking before the United Nations Security Council in New York, appealed to States, reminding them that in many conflicts around the world, " civilians are the first and principal target. Women, children, the elderly, the sick, refugees and internally displaced persons have been attacked in large numbers and methodically driven from their homes. (...) Genocide, ethnic cleansing, attacks on humanitarian personnel and the repudiation of the principles of humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality have become increasingly prevalent. (...) The unimaginable pain ... can leave none of us indifferent. Not only that, it compels us to take action on their behalf. "

The obvious solution is to try and influence the parties to armed conflicts, but here, too, we are faced with new and different conditions and challenges. In addition to the " regular " combatants, a growing number of " arms bearers " – security forces, special police troops, border troops, paramilitary units, armed groups belonging to liberation movements, guerilla fighters and armed clans – are today all convinced that they have to fight for a better future or even just for their own interests. How are we to reach and speak to them, to influence thei r conduct?

The behaviour of individual combatants appears to be determined primarily by the actions of their leaders, by instruction and training in the appropriate cultural, social and military environment, and by acceptance of a minimum of discipline and hence a willingness to comply with certain rules. It follows that if combatants are to act in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law, raising awareness thereof among their leaders and providing effective instruction and training play a decisive role.

The international community has asked the ICRC to support States in translating the principles of international humanitarian law into instruction and training activities. At the Security Council meeting of 12 February, Cornelio Sommaruga recalled that " through its programme of dissemination to the armed forces, the ICRC has for many years been training and raising awareness among those who bear arms all over the world " .

Experience world-wide shows that in several countries instruction in humanitarian law places too heavy an emphasis on theory and that it is difficult to incorporate into practical training exercises. Military commanders have never been particularly inclined to deal with the finer points of international law, and have preferred to leave that to " specialists " . There are thirty major international treaties comprising over 660 articles - who could provide instruction in them and, more importantly, who could absorb all that information? Do the provisions of these treaties not overly restrict military leaders'freedom of action? Another question of current interest: what ways and means are available to reach the many armed groups world-wide and urge them to observe certain rules?

This article aims to give a brief description of the ICRC (see frame) and its role in supporting instruction in the principles of international humanitarian law and the integration of those principles into training. It will then focus on several points in international humanitarian law training which deserve special attention, and conclude by calling on all leaders of armed goups to observe a minimum of internationally accepted rules in combat and to integrate these rules into training.

 Always where the action is - the International Committee of the Red Cross  

Wherever armed conflicts arise, resume or expand, those involved in them will sooner or later encounter the ICRC and discover that its delegates have only one objective: to provide assistance to the victims of armed conflict directly and without delay.

Who or what is the International Committee of the Red Cross?

The International Committee of the Red Cross is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and internal violence and to provide them with assistance.

It endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening international humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles. Founded in 1863, the ICRC is at the origin of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross are humanity, impartiality, neutrality, voluntary service, independence, unity and universality. To obtain unhindered access to the victims of a conflict, the principles of impartiality - no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious belief or political opinion - and neutrality - the refusal to engage in controversies of a political, ideological or racial nature - are of vital importance. There are no " good " or " bad " parties to a conflic t. The ICRC takes great care not to engage in any form of cooperation, however desirable it might be, that could arouse suspicion that it is associated with any political, strategic or military objectives. The ICRC has been given a mandate by the international community and is often the only international organization able to obtain free access to the victims of conflict in order to assist them. The ICRC is ready at all times to help coordinate activities for the sake of more efficient humanitarian work, but it always plans and implements its activities autonomously and independently, and gears them solely towards helping the victims.

The following figures for the year 1998 are perhaps more eloquent than any detailed description of the organization's objectives and activities.

In 1998, the ICRC maintained a continuous presence in 58 countries and was active in 80. It had a total of 9,006 staff, including personnel at its headquarters in Geneva. Its annual budget amounted to 583 million US dollars. ICRC delegates visited 212,000 detainees in 1,500 places of detention. The organization ascertained the whereabouts of 2,900 persons reported missing by their relatives and forwarded more than 295,000 Red Cross messages. The ICRC reunited 5,000 families and distributed over 100,000 tonnes of emergency relief supplies in 52 countries. It provided medical treatment for 34,500 in-patients and carried out 40,200 surgical operations.

 The unit for relations with armed and security forces  

The 13 officers working for the ICRC unit in charge of relations with the armed forces held hundreds of talks and gave 94 presentations; they conducted 112 basic training courses and 53 courses for future instructors in international humanitarian law. The unit also organized a series of conferences and regional seminars. Over the last few years it has assembled a team to provide training for police and security forces, which successfully carried out a first series of projects, for instance training the police forces of the federate states of Brazil.

 B. The International Committee of the Red Cross and its support for training in international humanitarian law  

Training is without doubt a national obligation. The Geneva Conventions call on the High Contracting Parties, " in time of peace as in time of war, to disseminate the text of the present Convention as widely as possible in their respective countries, and, in particular, to include the study thereof in their programmes of military ... instruction, so that the principles thereof may become known to the entire population, in particular to the armed fighting forces ... " .

The Diplomatic Conference, which met in Geneva between 1974 and 1977, in its Resolution 21 invited the signatory States " ... to take all appropriate measures to... ensure that knowledge of international humanitarian law (...) is effectively disseminated... " by " encouraging the authorities concerned to plan and give effect, if necessary with the assistance and advice of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to arrangements to teach international humanitarian law, particularly to the armed forces... " .

Over the years, ICRC headquarters in Geneva has established a division for relations with armed forces with the aim of deploying Swiss officers and what are usually retired commissioned officers from a wide range of nationalities in the field. All have experience in military training and preferably also in the diplomatic and international field; they may even have taken part in humanitarian missions. The task of these officers is to advise States at their request and to provide support in the form of training. Increasing has been made of this service over the years, and today delegates to the armed forces have been stationed in Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Egypt, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Kenya, Thailand, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. Two training officers participated in prepared planning conferences in which they give advice on how topics relating to the implementation of international humanitarian law can be incorporated into military exercises. The unit also organises, for example, conferences for senior officers in charge of training. The last one was held in Geneva in autumn 1998 under the title " HOT 3 " . Eight countries among which Kyrgyztan participated. Since then the Republic of Kyrgyztan has produced a Manual on the LOAC for officers, brochures for NCO's and the rank and included the LOAC into the curriculum of military training, among other measures. These services are rounded off with regional events, workshops and seminars.

Before they start work, delegates and instructors attend a two-week training course held in Geneva. This is also where a pool of officers is trained to provide support to ICRC delegations throughout the world as needed.

Support for governments comes in three forms.

Delegates organise and conduct basic training courses, usually lasting two to three days, training sessions for future instructors in humanitarian law, normally lasting between five and eight days, and give brief presentations on a wide range of subjects. The main objective of all training events is not only to spread knowledge of the contents and principles of international law but to show how those principles can be incorporated into everyday military and combat training and exercises.

In addition, delegates provide advice on how to implement and integrate international law into national military law, adapt texts, draw up new training regulations and write handbooks on humanitarian law, inco rporate international humanitarian law into other, for example, tactical manuals and into annual training instructions, and support the creation of training programmes for all types of instruction and training institutions at all levels.

Lastly, limited support is provided in the form of training documents, written material, general documentation and teaching tools such as videos, all of which make training more effective and persuasive.

As part of a process of reorganisation carried out at headquarters in the first six months of 1999, the former Division for Relations with Armed and Security Forces was integrated into the newly established " Communication Division " . Now known as DC/COM/FAS - CENTRE OF EXPERTISE, its tasks and objectives have been expanded: although it continues to be responsible for principles of co-operation and support, the centre will also be in charge of basic analyses and official positions which from a military perspective have an influence on humanitarian operations in armed conflicts and thus on the victims. Its expertise is also to carry greater weight in decision-making processes at headquarters. The guiding principles valid for the Communication Division ask to focus on " proximity " , " competence " , " quality " and " flexibility " as key ingredients in successful management and establishing and maintaining contact. To be more proactive is essential.

In a first stage emphasis will be placed on the following points:

  • greater protection for the civilian population, particularly in internal conflicts;

  • development of an official position for improved co-operation between civilian and military bodies, which incorporates the special principles of t he Red Cross and Red Crescent;

  • analysis of current armed conflicts with respect to the arms carriers involved and possibilities for influencing their behaviour in accordance with internationally recognised rules both by providing instruction and training and by engaging in " emergency dissemination " during ongoing armed conflicts;

  • how to deal with child soldiers;

  • inclusion of private security companies in training on international humanitarian law;

  • the use in operations of protected zones and demilitarised areas to give better protection to the victims of war and violence;

  • humanitarian action in peacekeeping operations;

  • the role of the armed forces in carrying out police activities.

 The ICRC would be pleased to receive any thoughts on the above topics and strives to establish a dialogue with people and institutions throughout the world. Please write to:  


 ICRC Headquarters, Geneva  

 DC/COM/FAS - Centre of Expertise  

 19, avenue de la Paix  

 CH-1202 Geneva  



 Fax: ++41 22 730 28 54  

What experiences have been gained world-wide in training armed forces from all continents in international humanitarian law and how can we use these experiences for our own work, in particular practical training? There are a surprising number of parallels. During so-called " B " training courses held for international humanitarian law instructors in Minsk, Belarus, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, participants were asked to solve identically formulated tasks, namely how to incorporate three international humanitarian law topics into an afternoon of combat training focusing on defence. All working groups found surprisingly good and similar solutions to the problem.

 C. Specific aspects of training in international humanitarian law  

" Leadership " could tentatively and generally be defined as the " targeted influencing of people " . Instruction and training form an integral part of this. If something is not practised in times of peace it cannot be expected to work in times of war. In the military field this statement is of timeless validity.

Anyone wanting his troops to display tactically efficient, correct and disciplined behaviour in combat must continuously invest in instruction and training, including in international humanitarian law. Instruction and training should be seen as a process. Commanders should not underestimate the importance of continuous dialogue with their subordinates.

In particular when it comes to international humanitarian law, training should consist of more than the transmission of information, of presentations, seminars and courses which result in statements such as " yes, I have heard of it and we usually implement it " .

The key is integration. International humanitarian law is not a specialist field for the legal profession, it is an obligation and challenge for leaders at all levels. Long-term success can be achieved only if we are able to adapt instruction and training in the principles of international humanitarian law to the function of different units, and to integrate them in a very practical way into all training programmes for military commanders. A squadron leader, for example, should have both theoretical knowledge of and practical training in how to treat a lightly-wounded enemy soldier (disarm him, give him first aid, search him, move him from the danger area, evacuate him) but need not necessarily know the significance of a demilitarised zone.

The general conditions for training in international humanitarian law differ widely from one country to the next and are so complex that it would be impossible to come up with any kind of recipe for perfect training in international humanitarian law. The following examples from contexts around the world and specific principles of international humanitarian law training might help the reader to understand the situation in his own country and possibly allow him to draw some conclusions.

What is the objective of training in international humanitarian law?

The aim is for all soldiers in regular armed and security forces and all members of armed groups to be familiar with the principles of international humanitarian law and to have a grasp of the rules which are important for carrying out the combat tasks falling to them by virtue of their rank and function.

At the tactical level, training aims in particular at making correct and disciplined behaviour the reflex action in a particular situation. At the operational level, the emphasis is on the automatic incorporation of the principles of international humanitarian law into decision-making, planning, command and control processes. The objective is for leaders of all ranks to intervene immediately if the rules of international humanitarian law are violated.

A number of additional training principles are summarised below:

1. At meetings and planning conferences, when issuing orders and holding discussions, senior military leaders should remind officers that it is a national responsibility to make international humanitarian law training an integral part of instruction and training activities.

2. The principles of international humanitarian law should be introduced into appropriate training material in a form which is comprehensible to military leaders. A special manual on the LOAC for armed forces focusing on correct conduct on the battlefield is recommended for the tactical field. (The Law of Armed Conflict for Armed Forces " Model Manual, ICRC, 1999).

3. The obligation to provide training in international humanitarian law should be mentioned in annual training guidelines and directives.

4. Training in international humanitarian law is not the domain of specialists. At the tactical level it is the responsibility of the direct superior, who should do the training himself to make it more convincing. Legal advisers are sources of essential expertise and work side by side with operational commanders.

5. Close co-operation among the legal, operational and training divisions in ministries and general staff is vital. Such co-operation ensures that topics related to international humanitarian law are systematically incorporated in accordance with clear objectives into all leadership training curricula.

6. All large-scale exercises should as a matter of principle include items related to the implementation of international humanitarian law and humanitarian challenges. Provision for this should be made already at the level of preparatory planning conferences.

7. Training can be said to have been successful when subjects related to international humanitarian law have been skilfully incorporated into tactical and combat exercises. Training in international humanitarian law always includes a practical component.

8. The aim is to achieve a balance between information, basic knowledge and practical application, for example through demonstrations, stationary training and short exercises, allowing for effective individual and group training in small-scale scenarios.

9. Commanders should receive continued training in how to incorporate humanitarian law and how to use the training material.

10. Preparations for peacekeeping and peace support operations should include a refresher course in international humanitarian law.

At the lower levels of the command structure and for all leaders of armed groups in a " non-peace " situation, personal commitment and interest are of decisive importance. Leaders must demonstrate by example that even wars have limits, that we are helping to protect the victims of war and violence by following certain rules; I will show you how, do as I do.

 D. International humanitarian law does stand a chance  

Sceptics will object that international humanitarian law training might work in time of peace but that completely different conditions prevail in war and that, more particularly, the violent internal conflicts of today have overtaken existing international treaties. True, the contractual provisions for internal conflicts as set out in Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II are modest compared with the large body of texts governing international conflicts. For the purpose of training it would be preferable to have clearer regulations for internal conflicts, but any modification or development thereof is likely to take years.

There is a connection between poor or no discipline in the military sense, inadequate instruction and training, reduced cultural ties, lack of leadership and organisational structures facilitating control and virtually unrestricted access to hand guns and light weapons on the one hand, and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law on the other hand. The opposite holds true as well: positive changes in the former result in a drop in violations of international rules. Where are the chances for bringing about change and what are the challenges? From the limited perspective afforded to DC/COM/FAS, it appears that governments are increasingly successful in strengthening their efforts to incorporate international humanitarian law in a meaningful way into the training they provide for th eir regular armed forces and security forces. This positive trend is being reflected for instance in an increased number of major military exercises which confront the trainees with humanitarian problems.

Another positive trend in this regard is that, apart from a few exceptions, the behaviour of units deployed as part of peace support operations world-wide is considered to have been correct and disciplined, which among other things is a result of successful practice-oriented training in the rules of engagement.

Indications are that in internal armed conflicts, regular armed forces and security forces can set a positive example through correct and disciplined behaviour in accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law and have a restraining influence on other parties to the conflict. This is a further reason why the international community has a significant responsibility to maintain its efforts.

There can be no doubt that the challenge for the decades to come is to provide better protection for the victims of internal armed conflicts, especially civilians. What is not so certain, however, is whether modifying or developing existing international contractual regulations would bring about substantial improvement - quite apart from the time needed for such a process.

It follows that it is important right now to convince all armed forces participating in a conflict, as well as those possibly preparing to do so, to accept certain minimum standards of conduct in combat derived from customary international law, human rights law, the four Geneva Conventions and other treaties of international humanitarian law. These rules must be formulated in such a way that they are clear and easy to understand.

To be able to assist potential victims, contact has to be established as soon as possible with the leaders of the parties to the conflicts. Also needed is a clear idea of what is to be achieved and a great deal of persuasion. As a rule, only an approach adapted to local conditions stands a chance of success.

In accordance with its mandate, the ICRC will take the initiative in the humanitarian sense, not least in view of the fact that as an internationally recognised, impartial and neutral organisation it stands the best chance of success at establishing contacts and arranging and holding talks.

Investment in instruction and training always pays off in the long term, even with the smallest, most isolated armed group. It will always remain difficult to strike a balance between military necessity and efficiency and the need to achieve victory by using all available force in the right place, and efforts to show a minimum of humane behaviour even in borderline situations during combat, not to be overpowered by lust for revenge and to allow fair play and self-discipline to prevail.

An essential means of achieving positive changes in combat conduct is to make a minimum of training a precondition for anyone who is to take part. This includes training in internationally recognised rules of behaviour in combat.

The challenge is to show that discipline and compliance with the rules protecting the victims of war and violence, and requiring more humane behaviour even in combat results in greater solidarity and fighting spirit. Human rights violations, terrorising the civilian population, fighting mostly civilians and the use of child soldiers may appear to offer an advantage in the short term but definitely lead to defeat in the long term and to exclusion from the international community. Lastly, it should be remembered that grave breaches of international humanitarian law can also lead to prosecution as a war criminal.

 E. Rules of conduct for international and internal armed conflicts  

There exist several internationally recognised principles and codes of conduct for the tactical level; they are part of the four Geneva Conventions or are derived from other international humanitarian law treaties and can serve as a basis for international humanitarian law training for all combatants engaged in armed conflicts.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC proposes to inform the leaders of all armed groups of the following basic principles, to call on them to enter into dialogue with their subordinates and discuss both the principles and the possibilities for their implementation and consequences for training:

" You, as a responsible, experienced military commander, are willing to acknowledge certain internationally recognised rules of conduct in warfare, to integrate them into training in your area of responsibility and to observe and enforce these rules in combat. In your daily discussions and preparations and in the orders you issue you will persuade your subordinate officers that compliance with these rules, which require you to act humanely even in the most difficult conflict situations, strengthens their solidarity, fighting spirit and discipline. All of these rules contribute to a life in freedom and dignity after the conflict has ended. The following rules must be observed:

1. Concentrate on locating and fighting the enemy. Under no circumstances fight the civilian population. Women, children and the elderly are the first to suffer from the consequences of battle. Respect and protect women's dignity. Do not rape them. If you fight well and help the weak you show true courage.

2. Never kill or torture a person who has fallen into your hands during combat. Protect prisoners of war and internees. Respect their life and dignity. Administer first aid even to a wounded enemy. Intervene if your c omrades overstep the limits of the law. Set a positive example - you could end up in a similar situation.

3. No matter how tense the situation, be disciplined and refrain from acts of revenge, as otherwise you start a spiral of uncontrolled violence. Have a moderating influence on your comrades. Look to your leader, wait for instructions and follow his example.

4. Never attack persons or objects bearing the red cross and/or red crescent emblem. They are there to help the victims of war. Allow them to carry out their humanitarian activities, support them and, above all, give them protection. The enemy will usually follow your good example.

5. Respect the property of others. Do not loot.

6. Respect the white flag as a sign that the enemy wants to negotiate or surrender. Hold your fire, inform those next to you, wait for instructions and respect the other protective emblems.

7. Never take hostages.

8. Never attack civilian targets. Destroy only to the extent absolutely essential to your mission.

9. Children are especially threatened and vulnerable. Never recruit a person under 15 years of age. Endeavour to recruit only persons over the age of 18. Protect children from abuse by others. Prevent children from taking part in combat. Talk to them. Give them the feeling that someone is looking after them. Inform your leader, who will establish contact with an international organisation.

10. Be especially careful when using mines or booby traps. Irresponsible use of such mines will cost innocent people their lives for a long time to come.

11. Treat all those in your power humanely. War will never be humane but you know the rules and restrictions and can prevent unnecessary suffering. Set a positive example for everyone: " I o bey the rules. Follow my example. "

12. Support all measures to maintain discipline in your operational unit. Take immediate action if you notice violations of these rules. Inform your leader. Deliberate misconduct will be punished. Above all you are responsible for your own behaviour in combat. There will be situations in which you will find it difficult to obey these rules. In the long term, your positive behaviour is an important contribution to a better future, a life in freedom, dignity and humanity " .

 F. Looking to the future  

In the long term, proper conduct in compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law on the battlefields of tomorrow will be achieved only if necessary investment is made in instruction and training, if military commanders of all ranks make a personal commitment, if the principles of international humanitarian law are made a part of practice-oriented training material, and implementation moves from theory to more practical training which takes closer account of the realities of combat. Instruction and training in international humanitarian law should be viewed as a process.

The fact that the armed forces of the future will face increased challenges in humanitarian terms should be reflected in their training and military exercises. Integration is the key: what is needed is not to create a specialist field for experts but to make international humanitarian law an integral part of all training programmes and incorporate it appropriately into all other leadership, tactical, logistics and combat training.

Better protection of the civilian population in armed conflicts, especially internal armed conflicts, and the prevention of humanitarian disasters occurring during or as a result of wars, for example because of a growing number of refugees, will be some of the challenges of the decades ahead.

Persuading all armed groups to comply with all or part of a minimum of internationally recognised rules and to incorporate them into training will be the biggest challenge of all. There is no magic formula for this. At present, patience, persuasion and direct discussions with the leaders in charge on the spot seem to hold the most promise. In this respect the ICRC and its services have much to offer.

The international community is called upon to maintain its efforts to incorporate the principles of international humanitarian law into instruction and training. Both the regular armed and security forces and troops serving in peace support operations can and must set an example which will have a positive influence on all parties to the conflict. Although the International Criminal Court, once established, is likely to have a deterrent effect, persuasion is to be preferred over threats. We can do better than to start the next millennium with more barbarity. Making international humanitarian law a part of instruction and training will continue to be the real challenge for all leaders of armed groups.

In the year marking the anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions the ICRC has taken a number of initiatives, notably the " People on War "  project. Under the slogan " Even wars have limits " , a world-wide survey has been conducted to alert the international public to developments and permit conclusions to be drawn.

There is no shortage of initiatives, appeals, reminders and even international contractual regulations. The armed forces are required to translate these rules professionally into effective instruction and training. That is where international humanitarian law is given a chance - and there is no alternative.

 Ref. LG 1999-206-ENG