Conference on Disarmament, 110th anniversary of the Second Hague Conference - Statement by the ICRC

22 February 2017

Informal Plenary of the Conference on Disarmament dedicated to the 110th anniversary of the Second Hague Conference, Geneva. Speech by Christine Beerli, Vice President of the ICRC.

The essential lesson of The Hague for today's world is simple: respect for IHL and for the principle of humanity is the single most effective way to reduce suffering in war.

On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, I would like to thank the Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN in Geneva, and Ambassador Borodavkin in particular, for the invitation to participate in this commemoration of 110 years of the Hague Conventions, and to offer our perspective on why these Conventions remain important today.

This conference reaffirms not only the continuing relevance of what was achieved in the Hague more than a century ago, but also the need – and I hope the desire – to keep the spirit of humanity enshrined in the Conventions very much alive.

Indeed, the 1907 Conventions and their annexed Regulations on the Laws and Customs of War on Land laid the foundations of many contemporary rules of international humanitarian law, or IHL. These include the rules regulating the conduct of hostilities and those limiting the choice of means and methods of warfare, including the use of certain weapons, with a view to reducing suffering.

They also provided the foundations for the rules related to the treatment of prisoners of war and for the law of occupation, found principally in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949 respectively. Elements of the 1907 Regulations can even be found in the Statutes of the International Criminal Court, established 90 years later. Violations of these norms are recognised as war crimes, including the use of poison or poisoned weapons; the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering; declarations that no quarter will be given, and attacks on combatants who have surrendered.

As such, they remain highly relevant, despite being challenged by the realities of contemporary armed conflict.

The main challenge is of course the alarming scale of lack of respect for existing rules – by States and non-State armed groups. I hardly need to remind you of the appalling violations of IHL frequently witnessed in armed conflicts around the world today: hospitals destroyed, civilians attacked and detainees mistreated. The list is long. Yet far from diminishing them, these violations only reaffirm the importance of the rules more than ever. The more the rules are broken, the more urgent is the need to ensure they are respected, and to refocus our sights on the protection of human dignity in war.

While many aspects of the Hague Regulations have an enduring significance today, I would like to focus on just two specific issues that are particularly relevant for this forum on disarmament. These are the prohibitions against using "poison or poisonous weapons" and against using "arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering."

Firstly, the prohibition against the use of poison or poisonous weapons is one of the oldest limitations placed on the use of specific weapons due to the horrendous suffering they cause. It is a rule of customary IHL, originally intended to outlaw the smearing of poison on arrows (and later bullets), and the poisoning of food and drink supplies, including wells and other water supplies. It was codified in the very first IHL documents, such as the Lieber Code in 1863, and in the early IHL treaties, including the 1899 and 1907 Hague Regulations. Following the widespread use of poisonous gases during the First World War, the ICRC issued a public appeal in 1918 against what we called "this appalling method of waging war." States then strengthened existing rules with the adoption of the 1925 Geneva Protocol in 1925, which prohibited not only the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, but also bacteriological methods of warfare.

The prohibitions on poisoning and deliberate spread of disease were further reinforced with the adoption of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, which now enjoy near-universal adherence by all States. Today these separate but overlapping prohibitions – of poisoned weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons – are rules of customary IHL, binding on all parties to armed conflicts, including non-State armed groups. It is critical that States continue, in good faith, to uphold these rules.

If any reminder is needed of the horrific human cost of defying the ban on chemical warfare, we need only look at events in Syria over the past three years. Just as the suffering of the people caught in the armed conflict there had already reached unprecedented levels, the use of chemical weapons - with the agonising effects of nerve agents, chlorine and mustard gas - made the situation even more catastrophic.

I come now to the second aspect of the Hague Regulations that remains particularly relevant today in the context of disarmament – namely the cardinal rule of IHL that prohibits the use of arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause unnecessary suffering. This rule was developed in earlier instruments (in particular the 1868 Declaration of Saint Petersburg on exploding projectiles) and confirmed in the 1899 and 1907 Conventions. Seventy years later, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions integrated this rule into modern IHL, prohibiting the use of "weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare that are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering."

The rule is primarily for the protection of combatants, as civilians already enjoy general protection from hostilities and they may not be directly targeted. Despite challenges and debates on how to interpret, implement and operationalize this rule, it has served as a basis for the prohibition of specific weapons, including blinding lasers, exploding bullets, expanding bullets, and indeed, poisoned, chemical and biological weapons. The core purpose of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – sometimes described as the inhumane weapons Convention - is to prohibit or restrict the use of conventional weapons which "may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects".

As we celebrate the 110th anniversary of the Second Hague Conference, this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions adopted in 1977. The First Additional Protocol in particular builds on, develops and reaffirms some of the rules that were elaborated at the beginning of the 20th century, notably on the conduct of hostilities and limitations on the means and methods of warfare.

Sadly, today's armed conflicts demonstrate that these rules are needed more than ever, and that the world must uphold their overarching objective – to protect the civilian population from the effects of hostilities.

As the nature of armed conflict has changed dramatically since the early 20th century when the Hague Regulations were adopted, so too have many of the rules of IHL developed – effectively the product of continuous reflection on how best to uphold humanity in the midst of armed conflict.

One important difference is that the 1907 Regulations bound only States, and were only applicable in inter-State armed conflicts. Now, rules of IHL regulating the conduct of hostilities and limiting the methods and means of warfare are also applicable in non-international armed conflicts and are binding on non-State armed groups, either by virtue of modern treaties, or because these rules developed into customary law.

Of course, the obligation of States goes beyond simply refraining from using prohibited weapons themselves. They must respect and ensure respect for IHL. This means ensuring that parties to armed conflicts fighting with their support – be they State or non-State forces -- do not violate these basic principles and rules. Conversely, ignoring the laws of war not only discourages other States from adhering to them, but can also further radicalize non-State armed groups.

From even before the time of The Hague Regulations to the present day, the ICRC has played a significant role in the development of prohibitions and limitations that prevent unnecessary suffering, both for combatants and civilians. This is based on the reality we see every day in our operations in armed conflicts around the world – the terrible humanitarian consequences when the rules are ignored.

Working to improve compliance with IHL by State and non-State armed groups remains at the heart of the ICRC's mandate and activities on all levels. To be credible and effective, this requires a rigorously impartial, neutral and independent approach, one that remains consistently distinct from any kind of political or judicial process.

This in turn helps to facilitate dialogue with parties on all sides to a conflict and humanitarian access to people in need. Indeed, one of our priorities is to strengthen our engagement with non-state armed groups in a wide range of our operations. Just one way of achieving this is through the provision of specific training in IHL aimed at increasing understanding of the rules and the critical importance of respecting them.

One hundred and ten years ago, the basic message at the heart of the Second Hague Conference was that war must have limits in order to reduce suffering. Today – as we are living in a world of multiple protracted armed conflicts, humanitarian needs on an epic scale and an alarming disrespect for even the most fundamental rules of IHL – that message has more resonance than ever.

The essential lesson of The Hague for today's world is simple: respect for IHL and for the principle of humanity is the single most effective way to reduce suffering in war.

Let us hope that this conference goes some way to keeping the spirit of The Hague very much alive.