International Conference on Islam and IHL - Statement by the ICRC

08 December 2016
International Conference on Islam and IHL - Statement by the ICRC

Speech given by Mr Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, at International Conference on Islam and IHL in Qom, Iran.

Your Excellencies, Distinguished guests,

Let me first express my appreciation and gratitude to Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Arafi, Ayatollah Araki, Ayatollah Moballaghi the academic secretary of this conference, Dr. Ziaee the President of the IRCS, Dr Abbas Araghchi, Deputy Foreign Minister, General Nasrolah Kalantari, Deputy Minister of Defence, and the Qom Centre. They had the vision and sheer determination to create this unique opportunity for all of us to listen to each other and to learn from each other.

I'd also like to thank the foreign scholars and experts who've travelled from more than 20 countries, to celebrate with us the 10th anniversary of the dialogue between humanitarian and Muslim scholars on common humanitarian values in Islam and International Humanitarian Law. This comes at a very important time, with so much human suffering, destruction and polarisation in the Middle East, affecting people not only in this region, but far beyond, as well.

Challenges for humanitarian action in contemporary conflict, ICRC IHL custodian

The figures speak for themselves: 20.8 million people in the region have had to flee conflict and 37 million are in need of assistance. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed; well over a million injured; tens of thousands of people have been captured or detained or have gone missing. Essential civilian infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Access to the remaining services is severely hindered by the hostilities; by explosive remnants of war or by rampant crime. Behind these figures are millions of stories of individual human suffering.

City after city has been turned into a battlefield. Civilians have been massacred, summarily executed, injured, raped and forced to flee; combatants have been harmed beyond military necessity. Home after home, hospital after hospital, school after school and water source after water source have been destroyed. Sieges have led to starvation and deprivation.

The staff at the International Committee of the Red Cross bear witness every day – and have done for years – to the horrors of these conflicts. Up close, and personal. We see the human results of sieges; bombings; killings; torture; the mass movement of people. And we do our very best to help.

Last year, for instance, we provided 10 million people with emergency food rations and ensured that 22 million had access to clean water. And we stand ready to respond to new challenges ahead – as needs grow. We have a unique insight into the dynamics of the conflicts and the effects on societies and populations.

And what we see, is an extra-ordinary fragmentation. Of families. Of communities. Of cities. We see an incredibly complex battlefield where perhaps two-dozen States and hundreds, if not thousands, of non-state armed groups, are involved in the conflicts.

And we see that violations of IHL, by many sides, are a daily occurrence across the region:

  • The indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force
  • The targeting of public infrastructure
  • The targeting of health facilities
  • Siege tactics preventing civilian access to essential goods and services

We're not saying all armed actors are perpetrating these acts. But many are whether unwillingly or on purpose. And it's vital that everyone analyses their own behavior and conduct.

There's a fundamental issue here: the basic principles and rules of international humanitarian law are too often not respected and, at times, openly violated.

So this conference comes at a crucial time, and with a true topic of concern, built on the experience and outcomes of a decade of dialogue.

Across all the existing divides in these conflicts, there needs to be more - a lot more - respect for human dignity, which is so fundamental to all mankind.

It's my pleasure to speak on this occasion on behalf of the ICRC as the guardian of international humanitarian law.

As you know, international humanitarian law is represented by the Geneva Conventions: four universally ratified treaties that are applicable during armed conflict. It fundamentally enshrines the norms and practices of people across time and cultural differences, which give the law its universal legitimacy and its relevance.

At the heart of international humanitarian law lies the protection of civilians, of detainees, of the wounded and sick, and of other persons who're not participating in hostilities. It's not just about prohibiting certain acts. It's wider. It's about a far-reaching and enduring commitment to humanitarianism: it's about appealing to all Parties to do whatever they can, at all times, to support humanitarian acts.

ICRC's global dialogue with religious leaders and faith based organizations

The preservation of human dignity and the protection of the human being in times of armed conflict is the essence of IHL. Human dignity, the sacredness of human life, and the notion of 'one mankind' are fundamental precepts in all the key world religions and cultural spaces. The protection of the religious practice of protected persons, such as prisoners of war, is a key tenet of IHL.

During armed conflict and in situations of organized violence, religion can play a key positive role in limiting the excesses of war. It can help establish dialogue and reconcile communities and belligerents. But it can also play a potentially negative role with inflammatory language, exclusion and the stigmatization of the 'other'.

Religious leaders play a vital role in strengthening respect for human dignity, especially in times of protracted conflicts and polarization. When respect for positive law is in crisis, as it is today, religion can play an important role in upholding key values and minimum standards. For instance, in the protection of civilians , in the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, and in ensuring humane treatment for displaced persons, migrants and asylum seekers. For the ICRC, it is established practice to engage with religious leaders, listen to their advice and seek their support.

I met Pope Francis in the Vatican, who expressed his empathy for the people of Syria, has shown his solidarity with migrants and refugees, and cares particularly for prisoners. I had the privilege to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf during a visit to Iraq, a man of great wisdom and modesty, who has expressed his appreciation for impartial humanitarian work in all parts of Iraq. Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Grand Ayatollah Alavi Gurgani. They made me aware of how International

Humanitarian Law, and its underlying principles, are solidly and deeply rooted and confirmed in Islam. In Myanmar, I sat with Buddhist monks to ensure the acceptance for our work for Muslim and other communities affected by violence in Rakhine state.

ICRC delegates met with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed al-Tayyeb, in December 2012 and discussed with him the situation in Egypt and the turmoil in the Middle East.

A leading Salafi scholar in Jordan who used to be visited by ICRC delegates while being detained by the authorities, wrote years ago: "As long as the ICRC adheres to its neutrality (...) it will always receive our verbal and actual gratitude and compliments, as we learned from our religion and from the guidance of our Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him."

The ICRC's dialogue with Islamic Scholars on Islam and IHL

The concept of neutrality is not an invention of modern humanitarian law. It has a long tradition in what the great 20st Century scholar Mohamed Hamidullah from Hayderabad called the "Muslim Conduct of State". The emissary of a state with which Muslims were at war, used to be granted an aman, or safe passage, so that he would be unharmed and protected throughout his mission.

In the 1990s, when the ICRC began to reach out more systematically to Muslim scholars and Islamic institutions, we were welcomed, in part, due to our shared practices.
Our delegates learned to see the rules of the Geneva Conventions with different eyes – reflected in the mirror of Islamic jurisprudence, a rich corpus of rules governed by a complex and granular methodology.

Driven by their empathy for the victims of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other parts of the Muslim World, Muslim scholars, law experts and humanitarian practitioners embarked on a journey from Mauritania to the Philippines that helped to overcome misperceptions on both sides, identify common ground and explore new ways of ensuring better respect for essential humanitarian rules in times of war.
Please allow me to cite a few examples:

  • The Qarawiyyine University in Morocco and the Zeituna in Tunis organized between 2006 and 2010 a series of national and regional workshops and seminars on the protection of war victims under humanitarian law and Islamic jurisprudence.
  • In Mombasa, Kenya, the Union of African Muslim Scholars, the Majlis Ulema Kenya and the International Islamic University in Uganda discussed in December 2013 the "Protection of persons deprived of freedom in armed conflict" with 33 East African scholars, academics and practitioners.
  • In Indonesia, the Muhammadiya University, the NGO Dumpet Dhuafa and the ICRC discussed in June 2013 in Yogyakarta with academics, Muslim scholars and NGO workers, the views and experiences of faith-based humanitarian and philanthropic organizations.

So when IRIN, the news agency of the UN body for humanitarian coordination, asked two years ago whether Islamic Law be an answer for humanitarians?" we proudly affirmed that this journey of dialogue and joint research of IHL experts and Islamic scholars, from different parts of the World, had generated legal and moral doctrines, which concur with the rules of the Geneva Conventions.

In many conflict areas, consulting with Muslim scholars and other religious leaders has become a habit for the ICRC and its primary partners, the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Our assistance and protection delegates have found precious counsel and doctrinal support from Muslim scholars on issues such as the protection of civilians.

The scholarly and humanitarian-academic debate and research has translated into concrete action for the protection captured persons, civilians, and civilian property. For instance:

  • Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's guidance to the fighter on the battlefield has been an important message of restraint in the on going fighting in Iraq.
  • In the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in its "General Order No 2", gives instructions to its combatants to respect medical personnel and civilians, with reference to the respective rules of Islamic Sharia and IHL.

The proceedings and results of workshops and Conferences on IHL and Islamic jurisprudence have been published and translated into the main languages of the Muslim World: Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Bahasa – but also into English and French. Islamic academic institutions and individual scholars have done further research on specific topics of operational relevance.

Muslim scholars have been very critical and outspoken about the lack of respect for IHL in contemporary conflict. The scientific committee of an International Conference that the Islamic University in Gaza organised last year with the ICRC, stated that: "the lack of seriousness of the parties to the conflicts, and the double standards in dealing with these provisions have led to the result that these provisions are not being applied as they should be."

We have worked on that: Between 2012 and 2015, the ICRC, together with Switzerland, conducted a consultation process on how to improve compliance with international humanitarian law and we are currently facilitating a State-driven inter-governmental process to enhance implementation of the law.

10 Years Dialogue on common Humanitarian Values in Islam and IHL in Iran

The 10th anniversary of the Dialogue on Common Humanitarian Values in Islam and IHL in Iran, is a moment to take stock and, also, to look forward.

Let us first look back. It was in 2005 that the ICRC consulted, for the first time in the Holy city of Qom, high-ranking experts of Islamic Jurisprudence on humanitarian issues of contemporary concern. At a time when Islam was often misrepresented in the West, the Qom Conference was a unique opportunity to discuss religious, legal and humanitarian matters in a language that was understandable to all cultures.

The publication of the proceedings of this gathering, and the follow-up work with partner institutions, led to the creation of the Centre of Comparative Studies on Islam and IHL, which the ICRC has supported until the present day, along with the Iranian Red Crescent Society and the National Committee of Humanitarian Law.

I am particularly happy to see that throughout all these years, prominent Iranian Scholars linked to the Hawza and other important religious institutions in Qom have strongly supported the academic-humanitarian efforts of the Centre of Comparative Studies on Islam and IHL.

I would like to congratulate Iranian scholars for the tremendous academic achievements in comparative Islam/IHL studies, which are reflected in numerous academic publications. These include the important encyclopaedic work, on protected persons and locations, the use of weapons of mass destruction and the protected status of the environment and natural resources, based on the main schools of Islamic Thought.

When I met Ayatollah Arafi in 2015, I felt encouraged by his reflections on the necessity to translate academic achievements of the Islam/IHL dialogue into concrete humanitarian results in conflict-affected regions.

Yet, as many Islamic scholars have suggested, we need to jointly reflect how the academic work can have a humanitarian impact in war-affected areas; how the universality of humanitarian rules can be demonstrated by concrete action on the ground.

The objectives of the conference

This conference brings together prominent IHL experts, Islamic scholars and other religious leaders, from more than 20 countries. This is an important milestone for the ICRC and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

During these two days of the conference I encourage you to put political and ideological differences aside and to see this event as an opportunity to listen to each other with an open mind and a strong good will so that we can all benefit from each other's academic knowledge and skills. I'm convinced that IHL experts and specialists of Islamic Jurisprudence will make an outstanding contribution to the universal acceptance of IHL and its underlying humanitarian principles.

I want to emphasize one thing. Events like this are not a goal in themselves. They're important milestones on the path we are treading together. That path is about making Islam's rich humanitarian heritage - and IHL - known to the world. And so we will help to protect human dignity in situations of violence.

To preserve a measure of humanity, States, their armed forces, civil society and all other actors, need to play their parts. The notion of unrestrained, total warfare must be challenged.

The premise that exceptional times merit exceptional, unlawful measures, must be confronted. International humanitarian law is, in fact, adapted, by design, to the needs of the most exceptional circumstances of human existence: warfare. Wars without limits are wars without ends.

Exceptional times call for exceptional commitments to humanity. We need more cooperation and partnerships between religious leaders and humanitarians on concrete, practical issues: putting the concerns and interests of civilians, of detainees, of captives, of displaced people: at the center of our work and efforts.

Islamic scholars and religious leaders can make a difference. They can instill in their communities, in their societies, across religious and political divides; a greater respect for civilians, for humanitarian actors and, ultimately, for the adversaries facing one another across the battlefield. Because we are coming from different horizons, standing for the same objectives, we are also contributing to strengthen trustful relations amongst people, which is a precondition to make the law work.

I would like to thank you again for being here today, and to thank all those who contributed to make this event happen but also to the dialogue that we hope will come out even stronger from this conference. Thanks a lot for your attention and wishing you a successful and fruitful conference.