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Improving compliance with international humanitarian law – Background Paper

27-06-2004 Article

Background Paper prepared for Informal High-Level Expert Meeting on Current Challenges to International Humanitarian Law, Cambridge, June 25-27, 2004

Over the years, states, supported by other actors, have devoted considerable effort to devising and implementing in peacetime preventive measures aimed at ensuring better respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). Dissemination of IHL generally, within academic circles and among armed forces and armed groups has been reinforced, and IHL has been increasingly incorporated into military manuals and doctrine. Domestic legislation and regulations have been progressively adopted or adapted, and the necessary structures put in place to give effect to the rules contained in the relevant IHL treaties.

In many states specific advisory bodies, such as National IHL Committees, have been established and international humanitarian law is increasingly being considered as part of the political agenda of governments. At the same time, by encouraging the national prosecution of war crimes and, more significantly, by the establishment of international bodies such as the ad hoc international criminal tribunals and the International Criminal Court, the international community has concentrated its efforts since the early 1990s on the repression of serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Despite these advancements in preventive and repressive measures, however, insufficient respect for the rules of international humanitarian law during armed conflict remains an abiding problem. It is the result of both the lack of political will and practical ability of parties to an armed conflict - both States and armed groups - to comply with their legal obligations. While efforts to improve both the prevention and repression of IHL violations are fundamental and must continue, the question of how better compliance with international humanitarian law can be ensured during armed confli cts thus deserves greater attention.

In 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in cooperation with other institutions and organizations, organized a series of regional expert seminars to examine this issue. Regional seminars were held in Cairo, Pretoria, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City, and Bruges (Belgium). Participants included government experts, parliamentarians, academics, members of regional bodies or non-governmental organizations, and representatives of National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Based in part on the recommendations coming out of this series of expert seminars,1 two aspects of improving compliance with international humanitarian law are proposed as the subject of further reflection for Topic III of the Informal High-Level Expert Meeting:

  • the role and responsibility of third States not party to an armed conflict to take appropriate action to “ensure respect” for international humanitarian law; and

  • the strategies or tools that might be considered in order to influence parties to non-international armed conflicts to adhere to their IHL obligations.


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