Conduct of hostilities: challenges in contemporary armed conflicts

20 October 2017

Speech delivered by ICRC President Peter Maurer at the Senior Workshop on International Rules governing Military Operations (SWIRMO) on Friday 20 October, Mexico City.

Firstly, thank you for your participation at this, the eleventh SWIRMO conference, which I hope is sparking valuable discussions.

For 150 years, through its neutral and impartial humanitarian action, the ICRC has witnessed the changing dynamics of conflict and violence. These insights and experiences as a frontline negotiator inform our legal work, while principles and policies guide our practical response in more than 80 countries today.

In recent times, we've seen a decrease in the number of all-out international armed conflicts; while internal armed conflict and protracted situations of long-term violence have continued to rise.

Recently, I have visited, amongst other places, ICRC operations in Syria (our largest operation worldwide), in Yemen (where we have just doubled our budget to reach 100 million USD a year), South Sudan, Myanmar and Ukraine.

It's a grim picture, which presents itself in many of these countries: unbridled violence, increasingly fragmented actors in the battlefields, easy availability of weapons, unrestrained strategies in the use of force and as a consequence, human suffering beyond measure, social systems falling apart, massive displacements ensuing.

It is a world in disorder with different types of violence – politically motivated, criminal, driven by inter-community conflict – are all intermingling and making work difficult for humanitarian actors.

While each context has its particular logic, dynamics and specificities, it is shocking to see how similar the detrimental impact of war and violence is on people across the world. The exponential growth of needs, combined with limited response capacities, leave millions of people without any hope for a dignified life. The key figures are indicative:

  • 125 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide
  • 65 million are displaced by violence today, the highest number since the Second World War
  • One in two children do not reach their fifth birthday in some conflict-ridden contexts
  • More than 1.5 billion people, including 350 million of the world's extreme poor, live in an environment of continuous fragility, violence and conflict. That's a huge number of people at risk.
  • The cost of violent conflict today adds up to 13 trillion USD annually, an estimated 13% of global GDP.

The conflicts in which we operate are increasingly protracted – long term, fragmented and complicated: in our ten largest operations, we have been on the ground for an average of 36 years. We were created as a humanitarian organisation to respond to emergencies yet we find ourselves in working in protracted conflicts for decades. We have been in some conflicts for 60 years... and still the wars continue.

Decades of fighting and insecurity, and ongoing violations of the law of war, are destroying basic social infrastructure, health, water and sanitations systems and have stalled education and economic development. We've seen in Yemen how the breakdown of health and sanitation services has led to the outbreak of cholera – the numbers of people infected are now thought to have surpassed 800,000 people; making it the largest outbreak of a preventable disease of our time.

Conflicts are today waged in the middle of densely populated areas with weapons conceived for open battlefields and it is civilians who increasingly suffer the consequences. A recent ICRC report on Syria, Iraq and Yemen found that five times more civilians have died in offensives carried out in cities than on other battlefields.

A sober analysis of our working environment tells us that our mitigating efforts through humanitarian assistance programs will have limited success if we do not make major efforts to shrink the needs, which will first and foremost come from the respect of rules of war and more restraining interpretations of what the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution actually mean.

Across many situations, we see a shocking lack of respect for the basic principles of international humanitarian law when it comes to the conduct of hostilities, the way war is being waged and the way weapons are being used.

We see military strategies unfolding through which civilians become the primary object of attack rather than being the primary object of protection. And we see IHL increasingly viewed as a transaction: as an issue to negotiate among parties instead of an issue to comply with.

These dynamics and trends have a profound impact on the lives of millions of people, who are exposed daily to death, injury, permanent disability and humiliation resulting from armed violence.

In recent years we have seen a rapid rise in armed groups that are horizontally rather than vertically organized. More armed groups have emerged in the last six years than the previous six decades. Our research shows that violations of IHL are committed by both, state and non-state parties to conflict.

So we must engage with all parties and foster dialogue amongst belligerents in order to change behaviors. Our aim is to carve out a humanitarian space through engagement on all sides of the frontline which can help to provide practical solutions for people.

The ICRC makes ongoing efforts to build relations and sustain dialogue with all parties to armed conflicts, and State and non-State actors in other situations of violence. The purpose of such dialogue is to secure not only acceptance for humanitarian action, but importantly also respect for the applicable law protecting persons in armed conflict or other situations of violence.

The ICRC also makes considerable efforts of reaching out to influential circles, including religious and community leaders and scholars, which enable us to better understand how value systems relate to the law of war, and to identify commonalities between those value systems and IHL.

There is much we need to understand about how to better influence behaviors and prevent IHL violations. For example in South Sudan, where I visited in August, we have seen endless rounds of seemingly indiscriminate violence, health workers targeted and hospitals looted. However, in the latest round of fighting in certain places and moments restraint was exercised and the hospitals where ICRC works were left untouched. We are working to understand the contributing factors to be able to replicate and scale these examples of positive behaviors.

Our research with several armed forces and non-state armed groups is providing fresh insights on behavioral change. We are also discovering that a frontline fighter is more concerned about the views of peers than the punishment of commanders: meaning prevention of violations is often driven horizontally between combatants rather than vertically by authority. We also see that pressure from communities can have a bigger impact than legal accountability systems.

The evidence is also showing that practice of shunning armed groups and criminalizing contact is often counterproductive. This runs against many of the practices and security policies we see around the world. But if we are to see improved behaviors then non-state armed groups must be brought into 'the tent'.

Providing an adequate response to the magnitude and complexity of humanitarian needs generated by contemporary conflicts and other situations of violence, requires a holistic response and the active involvement of a wide range of actors.

The ICRC always tries to engage with those actors directly involved in armed conflicts, but this alone is insufficient to address its concerns. We must also bring the discussions who are partners to conflict and can influence military strategies and the conduct of hostilities.

Today no one fights alone. In many of the major conflicts in the Middle East, in Africa and beyond, coalitions pool their resources against common enemies. We see wars that are fought by proxy; partnerships are kept hidden, secret, indirect.

This can create a climate in which political and military stakeholders see themselves as free from the scrutiny of accountability process and may choose to act outside of their usual practices.

All States are obliged to ensure respect for IHL by the parties to armed conflicts, by refraining from encouraging or assisting violations of IHL, and by proactively influencing the parties to respect IHL.

In partnerships, as in all other cases, the ICRC also encourages all states to lead by example: to steadfastly respect their own obligations under IHL.

To put it plainly, there is responsibility of allied states to make sure their partners are not taking the cheap options; to put vetting procedures in place, which put pressure on partners; to clarify roles and responsibilities, ensuring proper application of the rules governing the conduct of hostilities, detention and protection of civilians. It is critical as well that they are not putting a dirt cheap price on the lives of civilians, selling arms with little thought to how they will be used.

To make a particular note on the arms trade. Arms transfers are at the highest levels since the end of the Cold War, with a significant proportion going to those fighting in the most brutal of wars. States have a special responsibility and must use this leverage to ensure partners respect IHL, and refrain from transferring weapons where there is a substantial or clear risk that the weapons would be used to commit IHL violations.

The ICRC appreciates the leading role of Mexico in the development and functioning of the Arms Trade Treaty. Mexico's efforts were critical for the success of that treaty, which has established strong global – though not yet universal - rules on responsible arms transfers. The transfer prohibitions and export assessments under the Arms Trade Treaty hold the promise to reduce human suffering by preventing weapons being supplied to parties to armed conflicts who violate IHL.

So it is in the power of all states, and I would argue, in the interests of states, to act differently in partnerships, and the law provides an opportunity to do so.

At the ICRC we strongly believe that the IHL is a practical tool that can provide solutions and this brings me back to why we are all here in this room today. The power of SWIRMO is creating the space for experienced military officers to discuss vital challenges and together learn how best to address these issues in military operations.

As you will no doubt be aware, the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement give the ICRC the mandate to help armed forces incorporate international law governing military operations, however, it is you, the representatives of the States and their Armies who have signed treaties of international humanitarian and human rights law, and who ultimately remain responsible for its practical application.

I am happy to note that the following panel explores some of the critical questions and circumstances with which we are confronted today and that we also hear about the challenges of interpreting and applying IHL in the context of new technologies.

Compliance with the law comes down to knowledge, leadership and military discipline. It can only be assured when the rules are assimilated to the point whereby they become an automatic reflex. Ensuring that each soldier has the means to apply those rules is an immense task. You play a crucial role. As senior officers you bear the responsibility for imparting this practical knowledge, creating a command climate that is positive towards IHL and exclusive of violations, and ensuring its enduring influence on conduct and behaviours.