60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

09-07-2009 Statement

Address by Christine Beerli, ICRC Vice-President, London, 9 July 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,

I am very pleased to be here today and would like to extend my thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the British Red Cross for organising this joint conference to mark International Humanitarian Law Day.

"... while the Geneva Conventions provide a fundamental legal framework for the necessary restraints to prevent human suffering in armed conflict, the political will to fully implement them remains insufficient. My appeal here today is that European States continue to treat as a matter of priority the implementation of, and compliance with, these Conventions." 
The four Geneva Conventions – which celebrate their 60th anniversary on the 12th of August this year – truly are a milestone in the evolution of how wars are fought. They aimed to abolish the concept of " total war " as witnessed during the Second World War by establishing a legal framework to place limits on how war is waged. Today, they continue to constitute the bedrock of international humanitarian law, or IHL, and are among the most important treaties governing the protection of victims of armed conflict. These victims include the wounded and sick, the shipwrecked, prisoners of war, civilian internees, civilians living under occupation and other categories of civilians such as women, children and displaced people.

The Conventions have been universally ratified – meaning that they apply to any armed conflict, whether international or non-international, anywhere in the world. Although largely devoted to international armed conflict, t hey contain within them common Article 3, a mini-convention within the Conventions that was the first treaty provision specifically addressed to non-international armed conflicts. As most conflicts today are of a non-international character, common Article 3 remains of the utmost importance. Among its strong points is also the fact that it binds all parties to the conflict, including armed groups.

While the character of armed conflict is constantly changing with new challenges such as terrorism and asymmetric warfare, the Geneva Conventions have remained relevant as we continue to suffer non-international armed conflicts, situations of occupation, and even some “traditional” inter-State, international, armed conflicts.

The Geneva Conventions have been successful. They have saved numerous lives, given comfort to thousands of prisoners of war, helped reunite millions of families and contributed to the restoration of peace. They have also served the ICRC well in seeking access to prisoners, in tending to the wounded and sick, the displaced, in addressing the needs of civilians under occupation and in offering its services to the parties in non-international armed conflicts.

On the other hand, we have also witnessed many violations of the Geneva Conventions. The good news is that these violations no longer pass in silence. While in the past giving effect to the obligation to account for violations was rather the exception than the rule, the situation is gradually changing. Impunity for serious violations of international humanitarian law can no longer be taken for granted. This change in attitude has come about, in large part, under the pressure of public opinion.

However, there is still a long way to go. So what can be done, particularly here in the European context?

Europe was at the centre of the two World Wars of the first half of the 20th century, wars which moulde d the character of the Geneva Conventions. Since then, Europe has taken a leading role in their promotion, dissemination, and implementation and, through the adoption of their three Additional Protocols, also its further development. 

The European Union in particular has contributed to these endeavours, notably, through its adoption of the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with International Humanitarian Law in December 2005. The EU has also supported enforcement mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court.

What is needed now is a common European approach to the application of IHL, with four main focus areas, namely: implementation; dissemination; advocating for humanity; and accountability. This call to action reflects an initiative taken within the European Legal Support Group, comprising the legal advisers of various European national Red Cross societies. A number of these will send a common letter to their national authorities on the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

So what does this mean? In terms firstly of implementation, there should be a continued momentum within Europe towards ratifying all IHL conventions, in particular the three Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

The obligation to respect IHL cannot be fulfilled without domestic implementation. States need to adopt all the legislative, regulatory and practical measures that are necessary to incorporate IHL into domestic law and practice. These include measures for the use and protection of the distinctive emblems, the repression of serious violations, the protection of cultural property, the regulation of means and methods of warfare and the protection of the rights of missing persons and their families, among others.

Secondly, in terms of dissemination, an increased knowledge of IHL is clearly a prerequisite to better respect for the law. To this end, members of the armed forces at all levels must be properly trained in the application of the law. Civilians too should have at least a basic understanding of those parts of IHL which could affect them in case of armed conflict. Young people in secondary level education should be targeted, as for example through the Exploring Humanitarian Law initiative, an education programme which introduces them to the basic rules and principles of IHL.

Thirdly, European States have an important and influential role to play as advocates for humanity in times of armed conflict – whether in Europe or around the world. This advocacy role should include promoting respect for neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action during armed conflicts; developing IHL, where necessary, to meet the challenges of modern armed conflicts; and supporting other States in their efforts to ratify conventions and to adopt national implementing legislation.

Fourthly, accountability for violations of IHL must be further strengthened. National legislators and courts must live up to their responsibilities of ensuring that domestic legislation recognises the criminal responsibility of those who violate IHL, and of actually enforcing such legislation. On the international level, cooperation should be strengthened in the investigation and prosecution of such violations.

In conclusion, while the Geneva Conventions provide a fundamental legal framework for the necessary restraints to prevent human suffering in armed conflict, the political will to fully implement them remains insufficient. My appeal here today, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, is that European States – like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – continue to treat as a matter of priority the implementation of, and compliance with, these Conventions. This goes for national authorities, armed forces and legislators.

I would challenge anyone to contradict the belief that wars must have limits. Let us all do our utmost to ensure that this belief is translated into a meaningful reality, where it really matters, for the victims of armed conflict around the world.

Thank you.