When law is respected, peace is easier to achieve - UN Human Rights Council 2017

34th Session of the Human Rights Council, United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland. Speech given by Mr. Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC

I would like to talk to you about the positive power of law – how it can work best to protect people in the most challenging circumstances, including armed conflict, other situations of violence and threats to public order.

We stand at the beginning of another year. The crises, which engaged your Council's attention in 2016, continue. Millions of people still suffer the terrible humanitarian consequences and personal tragedies of violence and war. Much of their suffering is due to violations of their human rights and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Inexcusable attacks on humanitarian workers disrupt relief and make conditions worse for civilians.

Violations disrupt the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and cause dramatic political and economic upheaval across whole regions. Globally, they make diplomatic convergence difficult. Violations of law are bad for stability, trade, investment and economic growth. They are bad for people and bad for social systems.

Since I last addressed you, I have met victims and political leaders in many countries. The great majority share the hope of the UN Secretary General that 2017 will be "a year for peace".

One way to realize their desire is to encourage greater respect for the law and to refrain from the brutal reciprocity of violations that drives cycles of violence and ruins the opportunity of a decent life for generation after generation.

International human rights and humanitarian law are the result of determined statecraft across time and cultures to create practical tools to protect people, prevent human suffering and secure more prosperous peaceful societies.

These instruments are less the expressions of idealism than the result of experience and careful negotiations. They strike a balance between the legitimate security interests of States and the protection of individuals during some of the most extreme circumstances.

Despite the inherent pragmatism of these laws, I repeatedly hear three main concerns about international humanitarian law:

  • "The law is not adequate to the nature of armed conflict today."
  • "The law is not applicable in a context of fighting terrorism."
  • "The law imposes unfair symmetric obligations on parties in asymmetric conflicts with proliferating armed non-state actors."

While I find such readings understandable in the face of the shocking indiscriminate violence that countries and populations have suffered recently, I do not find these perspectives helpful in addressing the challenges of today's violence.

International humanitarian law and Human Rights law do not pose an undue obstacle to protect State security.

International humanitarian law takes into account security risks in armed conflict, for which it is specifically designed. It offers guidance when confronted with difficult dilemmas between humanity and military necessity. Getting this balance right is key.

In armed conflict, a State is not prohibited from using military force against lawful targets or detaining enemies on security grounds. But persons not or no longer directly participating in hostilities have the right to be spared from indiscriminate attack, murder, torture and rape.

International humanitarian law is a minimal, non-reciprocal framework to guarantee these fundamental rights.

We recognize the difficulty in certain circumstances to assess the applicable law, but the idea that force cannot be used without limits must remain essential.

Our experience shows that the unrestrained use of force may prompt excesses of violence in return. Torture and ill treatment may lead to resentment, hatred and radicalization. The destruction of infrastructure and basic services creates deep human suffering and massive displacement with global consequences. All this becomes an obstacle to peace and stability.

Questioning the adequacy of the law too often reflects an unwillingness to ambitiously adapt and apply time-tested rules and principles to contemporary challenges.

Excluding IHL from being a useful guide in armed conflict today – including in certain counter-terrorism operations – is often just moving the goalposts and advocating for unrestricted military force, which usually fuels cycles of violence.

Questioning the obligations of IHL in asymmetric warfare is often a way to escape the responsibility to manage operations diligently - respecting proportionality and precautions.

Don't get me wrong: nobody can close their eyes to the huge challenges of fighting armed radicalism today. But questioning the applicability and justification of restraining laws and principles is, unfortunately, too often an excuse for unaccountable behaviour and a departure from well-established military practice.

This is sadder still, when positive examples of using the law to protect States and people do exist – often as a result of close dialogues with humanitarian organizations like the ICRC.

In Iraq, the principles of IHL are being used successfully to inform battlefield conduct and screening procedures during evacuations. Not all problems disappear but it makes huge differences to people.

In Syria, IHL has informed evacuation negotiations that have guaranteed safe passage for civilians in Aleppo and other places.

In detention, the principles of IHL and international human rights law have increased humane treatment, reduced torture and prevented cycles of resentment and radicalization.

In every major conflict, we work with States and non-State armed groups to ensure the provision of food and health assistance to sick and hungry victims of armed conflict.

Every day, IHL enables us to trace missing people, reunite families and address the tragedy of societies ripped apart by war.

When law is respected, peace is easier to make. Parties applying the law have found common ground, shared values and trust from which to build a peace agreement.

So, law works. And it must be made to work because when law is not applied the personal and geopolitical consequences of violations are simply too destructive.

It is also important for governments to note that the great majority of people in war want the protection of the law. Our recent People on War Survey shows that citizens closest to armed conflict recognize the critical importance of humanitarian rules. There are both legal and political reasons for your Governments to respect the law.

As the Guardians of IHL, allow me to mention the 40th anniversary of the 1977 Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions in June.

Negotiated and agreed in the very difficult geopolitics of the 1970s, they reaffirmed the principles of IHL in practical new rules. States did not give up on IHL but worked even harder to clarify its principles in practice.

I urge you to use this anniversary year to recognize the important humanitarian rules and practices these Protocols bring to armed conflict. I call on all States who have not yet done so to accede to these valuable instruments.

Above all, I ask your governments not to give in to the temptation of conflict escalation, and not to push back against the restraining limits of the law. Law works. It is a good deal for States, for citizens and for improving the prospects of peace.