DR Congo: removing the snake without breaking the eggs
In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the ICRC is endeavouring to promote respect for international humanitarian law among armed forces personnel and members of various armed groups. This work is often done in remote places in the middle of combat zones.
"You're operating in the village of X in a populated area," says Pascal Nepa, a young ICRC communication officer. "What factors must be considered in order to spare the civilian population during the attack?"
Opposite Nepa, 50 officers and non-commissioned officers of the Congolese army listening closely. Sunshine beams through the open windows, relieving the humid chill here in Minembwe on the high plateau in the province of South Kivu, 2,600 metres above sea level.
To discuss the matter, the men are invited out into the sunlit yard, a chance to warm up and stretch their legs. Small groups of five persons each are formed according to rank. The participants are enthusiastic about their task.
"ICRC staff often encounter senior army officers and commanders of the armed groups to talk to them about compliance with humanitarian law," explains Patient Masiriki, from the ICRC office in Uvira. "This is a combat zone and we try to have regular contact with everyone concerned, including civilians. Our neutrality is well known and understood." Masiriki has been working for the ICRC for 15 years and he knows the area well. Before the exercise started, he made a brief presentation on the organization. His talk is smooth and practised.
Pascal Nepa adds that most army personnel are acquainted with humanitarian law. His job for the next two weeks will be to travel around the high plateau and organize meetings like today's. "The problem is applying the law to specific circumstances. For a long time we confined ourselves to stating the rules. But that was too theoretical. For a year now we've been working to make this a more participatory event directly adapted to field realities. We work together with them to find ways of reconciling their military mission with the need to protect civilians."
Out in the yard, meanwhile, Masiriki and Nepa go from group to group, listening to the discussion and suggesting provisions of the law that might help produce a solution.
"You might call our approach 'dynamic'," says Masiriki smiling. "Some of the solutions still need to be refined in military terms, and that's up to the participants or their superiors. After all, waging war is their profession, not ours."
The participants are taking their places back in the hall. Each group reports the solutions it has found to the problems presented. There is applause at the end of each report. The colonel in command of operations in the region is taking part in today's meeting.
"This is a bit of luck for us," Masiriki whispers. "The colonel is an experienced man who feels that soldiers should be exemplary in their conduct. He does everything he can to prevent excesses."
"It isn't easy to send young men and officers into this area," says the colonel. "When engaged in operations we have to make tactical choices. But whatever the pressure we're under and whatever the constraints we encounter, we must always do our work in compliance with the law."
Humanitarian law – a protective shield
In a region marked by armed conflicts and ethnic tensions, compliance with international humanitarian law constitutes a shield for the civilian population. It also protects combatants who fall into enemy hands.
Today's session nears its end with the projection of a film shot here in the Congo, with army officers playing the parts. The film is followed by a discussion about protecting civilians and caring for wounded combatants.
Before the group disperses, the colonel stands up and presents a riddle: "A snake has slithered into the box where you keep your eggs. The snake is your enemy, the eggs are civilians. How do you get rid of the snake without breaking the eggs?"