Building respect for the law

01-05-2011 Overview

The ICRC's mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and other situations of violence, and to provide them with assistance. One way in which the ICRC does this is to ensure respect for the rights of people affected. That involves reminding authorities and others of their legal obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Helping governments fulfil their legal obligations

Every country in the world has signed up to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which protect the victims of war. States are obliged to ensure respect for the Conventions and to make sure the law is widely known and understood. The ICRC contributes to the development of this area of law and works to ensure it is applied. The organization offers its expertise and practical experience of conflicts to help governments meet their responsibilities by passing legislation, training the armed forces and the police and promoting international humanitarian law at universities and among young people.

The ICRC’s Advisory Service helps governments fulfil their responsibility to promote and implement statutory and customary IHL through national legislation and administrative measures. The Service works closely with national IHL committees in countries where they have been established.

The Advisory Service also provides specialized legal advice and technical expertise on implementation, covering issues ranging from punishing serious violations of the Geneva Conventions to protecting the use of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems.

The ICRC holds national, regional and international seminars on the implementation of IHL, often in conjunction with the authorities or a National Society. The Service conducts research, prepares model legislation and runs a database and documentation centre in Geneva.

Interaction with weapon bearers

Armed and security forces, armed groups and private military companies have a direct influence on people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, especially the sick and wounded and people deprived of their freedom.

In armed conflict, these bodies have a leading role to play in ensuring compliance with IHL. Agencies responsible for law enforcement (which usually means the police, but sometimes includes the armed forces) must also comply with international human rights rules and standards applicable to law enforcement.

ICRC delegates are constantly in contact with military and police units at all levels to obtain access both to areas where people need help and to people who have been detained. However, although governments are obliged to ensure that their forces receive adequate instruction in international humanitarian law and international human rights law, experience in the field has shown that this is not always the case.

The ICRC employs former military and police officers as specialized delegates, working with armed forces and the police. The aim is to have the relevant rules of IHL and IHRL incorporated into training and operational procedures. The ICRC also explains to these forces its own activities in the country concerned, to improve cooperation in the field.

Where possible, the ICRC makes similar approaches to other weapon bearers, in particular armed groups fighting the authorities. In places such as Afghanistan, Colombia and Sudan, the ICRC promotes respect for the sick and wounded, for non-combatants and for prisoners.

Certain governments have given private military and security companies increasing responsibility for roles normally assigned to the armed and security forces. The ICRC therefore promotes compliance with the law by the staff of such companies.

Education and outreach

The ICRC’s education and outreach programmes build awareness of IHL among young people. Young people are among those directly affected by atrocities in war, and they are tomorrow’s leaders, opinion-makers, soldiers and policemen. The aims of these education programmes are to foster respect for the notion of human dignity and to familiarize young people with IHL and humanitarian action.

The principal vehicle for these efforts is called Exploring Humanitarian Law, a programme for teenagers now being used in some 70 countries. EHL explores the ethical and humanitarian issues arising during armed conflicts, building on young people’s own experience wherever possible.

Universities are key partners in building respect for the law. By encouraging universities to offer courses in IHL and by supporting lecturers who teach it, the ICRC reaches out to the leaders of tomorrow. In cooperation with universities, the ICRC holds events for students, often working with Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies. These events include essay-writing contests and role-playing competitions, such as moot courts.



© ICRC / T. Gassmann / ch-e-00152