The Geneva Conventions are for all of us

Briefing by ICRC President to UN Security Council on "The promotion and strengthening of the rule of law in the maintenance of international peace and security"

13 August 2019

As delivered by ICRC President Peter Maurer

Mr. President of the Security Council, Excellencies, dear colleagues, thank you for convening this session and for the opportunity to brief you today.

This year marks an important milestone: 70 years since States convened to adopt the historic 1949 Geneva Conventions in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In doing so, they made a critical declaration: that even in armed conflict, even between fierce enemies, there must be limits on the suffering that we can inflict upon each other.

The Geneva Conventions symbolize our enduring and common humanity. Rooted in ideas, which have existed in all civilizations, they limit the devastating effects of warfare.

Today, the universally-ratified Geneva Conventions represent one of the greatest achievements of inter-State cooperation.

The Conventions show us what is possible when States take collective and individual action to uphold the law and humanitarian principles.

International humanitarian law does not ask the impossible. States were not carried away by lofty ideals when they negotiated the treaties. They knew the realities of war and they set out inherently pragmatic rules to protect and respect human life and dignity.

Through the four Geneva Conventions, protections are given for wounded and sick soldiers on land and at sea, prisoners of war and civilians. In addition, a major achievement in 1949 was the inclusion of Article 3, my colleagues have just mentioned it, common to all four Conventions, which provides protections in conflicts involving non-State armed groups.

Today IHL remains a key tool for States to deal with contemporary challenges of conflict, including counter-terrorism operations in armed conflict. IHL strikes a balance between military necessity and humanity.

Every single day international humanitarian law is at work saving lives and protecting women, men and children in conflicts around the world. We rightly hear about the violations because of the consequences which are tragic and visible, but we must also recognize the protective power and positive impacts when international humanitarian law is respected.

The impacts of IHL are visible in the events that take place – when the wounded and sick are evacuated to safety, when people detained are treated with dignity, when the fate of missing people is finally clarified, when humanitarian assistance is delivered across frontlines.

The impacts of IHL are also shown through acts of restraint, when horrors are not inflicted – civilian areas are spared from direct shelling, medical workers are able to freely operate without threat or targeting.

When respected, international humanitarian law reduces the risk of physical and social damage to communities over the long term. In this era of protracted conflict, people are living through war and violence for years or even decades, and some semblance of day-to-day life must continue. When IHL is respected the entire collapse of towns and cities can be avoided, meaning fewer people are displaced; and schools, hospitals and markets remain open.

Dear colleagues, while the Geneva Conventions are universally ratified, it is clear by the obvious terrible suffering in today's conflicts that they are not universally respected.

Too often ICRC sees the impact on people when IHL is violated – indiscriminate killing, torture, rape, cities destroyed, psychological trauma inflicted.

But continued violations of the law do not mean the law is inadequate, but rather that efforts to ensure respect are inadequate. We can – and must – do more. You can do more.

Experience tells us that when it comes to violations of IHL, it is not only the knowledge of the law that counts, but the translation of that knowledge into behavior.

The challenge is to ensure not only that the law is integrated into formal doctrine and military procedures, but that it also becomes an ethical standard of behavior among forces and individuals. That fighters facing a choice to act in violation of the law know and say, 'this is wrong; this is not who I am'.

On this anniversary we call on States to be vigilant – to keep watch over their legal responsibilities and continue to take practical steps for ambitious interpretation and thorough implementation of the law.

States can do more:

  • Ratifying all IHL-related treaties;
  • Strengthening military doctrine, rules of engagement and practice;
  • Ensuring military training socializes the rules and principles of IHL;
  • Developing national legislation which is compatible with international obligations; and
  • Training parliamentarians and legal professionals on IHL and more.

It is a task of ensuring that the words of the Geneva Conventions do not remain dormant in legal texts but instead are known, applied and championed.

As a living document, the way the law is understood must reflect present day realities.

There is no doubt that the modern battlefield is a complex arena.  Urbanized warfare, an increasing number of armed groups, partnered warfare are posing new and difficult dilemmas. Rapidly developing technologies are creating new frontlines in cyberspace, as well as new ways to fight, for example autonomous weapon systems and remote technologies.

With these new challenges ahead, we need to consistently reflect on the meaning and development of IHL to meet the challenges of warfare today and in the future. The ICRC is working with States on the application of basic IHL concepts in these emerging fields and we ask that they engage in constructive and open dialogue with us on these important issues. The world cannot afford to miss the opportunity to preserve humanity on these new frontiers.

Dear colleagues, Mr. President, the Geneva Conventions are for all of us – they represent a line of our common humanity, and they shield us from our own barbarity. We cannot forget this.

This anniversary offers us encouragement that respect for the law is both possible and desired by all of us.

It is also a call to do more, to do better and live up to our responsibilities during times of conflict to respect life and dignity.

Mr. President, I thank you.