Reflections on 70 Years of the Geneva Conventions and the Challenges Ahead

28 November 2019


The New Delhi delegation hosted a series of programmes to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. These events coincided with the visit of Eva Svoboda, Deputy Director for International Law and Policy at the ICRC, who, on different occasions, spoke of international humanitarian law's silent yet significant achievements in protecting the victims of armed conflict and its continuing relevance despite a range of challenges.

Upholding human dignity in times of conflict

The first of these events was organised on 13 November 2019 at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies titled 'Autonomous Weapons and the Ethics of Human Responsibility'. The Deputy Director and Professor Subhashis Banerjee from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi discussed a range of global issues concerning autonomous weapons from a legal, ethical and technical standpoint.

The discussions began with how the ICRC characterises autonomous weapons as those that can select and attack targets without human intervention. Such weapon systems have been the focus of discussions among States for the last six years under the auspices of the Convention for Certain Conventional Weapons. With any weapon system, old or new, the ICRC's position is to ensure that their use is in line with humanitarian standards. Svoboda underscored the need for human control in the use of such weapons in all stages from the weapon's design and development to deployment and during an attack to ensure compliance with IHL and ethical acceptability. "It is a dangerous fallacy to suggest machines can apply international humanitarian law. The ICRC is crystal clear: only humans can apply IHL. Legal obligations under IHL and the accountability for them cannot be transferred to a machine, algorithm or weapon system," she said. Professor Banerjee then addressed the issue of human control and artificial intelligence (AI) enabled weapons systems from a technical perspective and covered issues of predictability, reliability and bias in artificial intelligence (AI). He noted that, "when it's a matter of making decisions in milliseconds, a machine could be considered more reliable. However, when they fail, they do so catastrophically."

The ICRC is crystal clear: only humans can apply IHL. Legal obligations under IHL and the accountability for them cannot be transferred to a machine, algorithm or weapon system.

The second panel discussion was held on November 14 at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) featuring professor Srinivas Burra, Faculty of Legal Studies at South Asian University, former Ambassador Asoke Mukerji and Eva Svoboda. Moderated by former Ambassador H. H. S. Viswanathan, the discussants addressed the topic 'Changing World. Unchanged Protections — GCs at 70'. The discussion began by recalling the aftermath of World War II and the humanitarian considerations that inspired States to come together to revise the earlier Geneva Conventions of 1929 and further expand coverage to civilian populations through the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. These Conventions are universally ratified and reflect universal values of ethical behaviour. Emphasising the necessity of these norms, Svoboda said, "States need to adopt national legislations that implement IHL rules and ensure these rules are widely known and complied with." Drawing attention to the changing nature of conflict, Professor Burra said, "We need to understand if the development of the law is keeping pace with the developments around the world, especially with regard to the non-state armed groups and new technologies of warfare."

Perspectives from Asia and Africa

The last programme in this string of events was a joint initiative by the ICRC and the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization (AALCO) to commemorate the 70th anniversary by drawing on perspectives from Asian and African States. Held on November 15, it included two panel discussions — the first focussing on 'IHL Implementation' and the second dealing with 'Counterterrorism, IHL and Principled Humanitarian Action as a contemporary IHL Challenge'. On this occasion, the ICRC also launched the 2019 edition of its report on IHL and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflict. The discussions began with Yahia Alibi, Head of the New Delhi Regional Delegation, affirming that "the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions is not only an occasion to celebrate but also to reflect and reassess opportunities for strengthening respect for IHL." He added, "The door of humanity is open for us to walk through. All that is needed is commitment." Prof Kennedy Gastorn, Secretary General, AALCO, noted that, "The GCs are rooted in conservation of humanity and universal goodwill. The protection offered under the Conventions have helped safeguard human life. They symbolise hope and optimism for millions who are affected by armed conflict."

The panels featured ambassadors from Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Belgium who recalled the measures taken to ensure respect for IHL and the practical challenges in post conflict contexts involving death, destruction and economic losses. The discussions also navigated difficult questions of political and resource constraints as well as issues of accountability while acknowledging the importance of seeking solutions from within through the informal justice mechanisms such as the Gacaca courts in Rwanda. The Ambassador from Libya and the ICRC addressed the legal frameworks governing IHL and counterterrorism as well as the applicability of IHL to non-State armed groups. It also covered the importance of framing counterterrorism legislation so that it doesn't stand in tension with principled humanitarian action in light of UN Security Council Resolution 2462. The speakers agreed that the best wars are those that do not happen, but if there has to be war it is important to have rules.