Foto: Bibiana Bello / ICRC Colombia

Wars have limits that must be respected

Given the multiple armed conflicts around the world today, public debate about the rules governing wars is more relevant than ever. What are the limits to wars? What can be done to prevent human suffering? Are all and any actions valid when attempting to defeat an enemy?
Article 03 April 2024 Colombia

Real-time reporting on bombing and people having to flee their homes has led many to believe that armed conflicts are so cruel that they break the very rules of what makes us human. But this is not true. International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the "law of war", is aimed at reducing the suffering caused by armed conflicts.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is well aware of this suffering. For more than 160 years, we have been working to assist and protect victims of armed conflict. We know about the importance of IHL in reducing the pain caused by armed conflict. That is why, in Colombia, our call for all parties to comply is more than a mere formality. Rather, it is a direct way of demanding that all parties do everything in their power to ensure that their actions affect communities as little as possible.

All parties to armed conflicts must be firmly committed to concrete actions designed to protect the civilian popu- lation, wounded and sick people, missing people and their families, people deprived of their liberty, children and adolescents, members of armed groups who have laid down their weapons, and others. Although war can be cruel, they can be much more so when IHL is not applied. IHL reduces the barbarity of war.

However that, in 2023 our teams in the field continued to witness the terrible consequences of conflicts and disrespect for IHL. They witnessed the anxiety and fear within communities. They witnessed people's daily lives being impacted by the disputes between various armed groups and they saw how this affects their access to essential services such as drinking water, health care, food, education and, in general, to dignifying living conditions.

he humanitarian situation continues to be very concerning. For instance, although mass displacement declined at the national level, it grew exponentially in some regions, even reaching a 1,000 per cent increase on the previous year. Violence against health-care services continue to prevent communities from accessing the care they need. Additionally, only during 2023 alone, we recorded 222 cases of people reported missing in connection with armed conflicts that occurred during that same year. Entire communities continue to experience the conse- quences of the presence of explosive devices.

We therefore welcome all efforts to negotiate solutions to armed conflicts and reduce the suffering of thousands of people. However, we must remember that, even during peace talks and even when ceasefires are in place, the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict continue to exist, and this is where IHL can be helpful.

Humanitarian concerns need to be placed at the centre of the peace talks agenda. IHL is a guide and a concrete basis for this to happen because, although it does not seek to end armed conflicts, it does have tools that can guide the parties in their dialogue in order to reduce the suffering caused by these conflicts. Proper compliance with IHL improves the protection of civilians and other affected people, and allows special agreements to be made to directly and immediately strengthen that protection. This, in turn, can help build trust between the parties. Although it is up to the parties to sign these agreements, the ICRC offers them its expertise in IHL and humanitarian affairs, acting as a neutral intermediary to help implement the agreements.

This is a hopeful moment for the country. However, there are still thousands of people suffering as a result of the eight non-international armed conflicts that, according to the ICRC's legal analysis, are taking place in the country. That is why our humanitarian work continues to be critical.

During peace talks there may be hopeful moments for the country. However, there are still thousands of people suffering as a result of the eight non-international armed conflicts that, according to the ICRC's legal analysis, are taking place in the country.

In the course of 2023, we helped nearly 150,000 people with our support projects. More than 9.000 people received support for productive initiatives and more than 23,000 benefited from access to water, basic sanitation and community infrastructure. Our confidential dialogue and expertise facilitated the release of 66 people held by armed groups.

In 2024 we will continue to reach the most remote places in Colombia. Our goal is to support people suffering the most from armed conflicts and violence. And we will continue to remind the parties to armed conflicts that war is not a free-for-all and that, even in the midst of war, we are still human.

Lorenzo Caraffi
Head of Delegation, Colombia