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Russia: training in humanitarian law, and applying it

09-07-2008 Interview

William Bowie learnt about the ICRC growing up in South Africa and seeing his mother send his father – a prisoner-of-war in Germany during World War II – parcels, through the ICRC. He heads an ICRC department for cooperation with the armed and security forces.

William Bowie 

William (Bill) served in the South African air force for 34 years before retiring as a general in 2003. Subsequently, he visited a former air force colleague who was then in New Delhi working as an ICRC delegate for cooperation with the armed forces, and who told him about the opportunity of joining the ICRC. 

Bill applied to the ICRC headquarters, in Geneva. In 2004 he was offered the position of regional delegate for cooperation with the armed and security forces, based in the Russian Federation and also covering the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. This was a challenge that Bill accepted gladly. Since July 2005 he has been head of the ICRC Moscow delegation’s department for cooperation with the armed and security forces. 

 What are the general principles of implementing the ICRC programme of cooperation with armed and security forces?  

Prevention programmes, which are part of the programme of cooperation with the armed and security forces throughout the world, have two main components – the military and the police.

The main aim of the military programme is to ensure that international humanitarian law (IHL) is incorporated into the armed and security forces, both in theory and practice. Ideally, every soldier should know his personal responsibilities and, in the event of a conflict situation, civilians should be protected and basic rules of IHL observed.

This programme exists where there is a need for it. Firstly, in the main capitals of the world, and, secondly, in countries where there is a potential for conflict. Each State must realize that, upon signing the Geneva Conventions, it assumes certain responsibilities. Basically, implementation of IHL within the armed forces is the responsibility of the country concerned, but the ICRC can definitely help.

How is this programme working in the Russian Federation?  

In Russia the programme has been running for 13 years. The ICRC works in close cooperation with the ministry of defence and each year the minister for defence personally signs a cooperation agreement.

There are certain flagship activities. The main one is the " Senezh " course – IHL training carried out six times a year for legal officers and logistics and operational staff of the armed forces. So far, we have 1,200 graduates. The course is also at tended by officers from the armed forces of CIS countries, which makes the event international. One major achievement is that initially the course was conducted by the ICRC in cooperation with the ministry of defence, and now it is mainly run by ministry officers who deliver lectures and conduct classes.

The second major event is a competition for cadets who, as future officers, may one day find themselves in senior positions in the armed forces. The IHL competition, dubbed " General Skobelev " , is an event during which IHL is taught in an exciting way. Its competitive nature is very important for young people. The event also offers cadets an opportunity to practise their theoretical knowledge.

We also hold high-level meetings since IHL implementation depends a lot on the decisions of those in high-ranking positions.

We are pleased to note that IHL is integrated into the new rules of conduct for the armed forces and into staff training programmes. And, generally speaking, the integration of IHL into manuals is done systematically.

 Are there any special features that set apart the cooperation with the Russian army?

One of the things that make working in this country so special is its size, which is amazing. The Russian army has a million soldiers and officers. We therefore have to venture into military districts. We have started this successfully and plan to continue. For example, last year we organized an IHL course in Chita for officers of the Siberian military district as well as a course for marines in Vladivostok. In 2008 we are planning to organize IHL courses in Samara and Saint Petersburg.

50th Senezh course 

     How would you describe the current state of IHL implementation, and what are the plans for the future?

Since IHL or the " law of war " is mostly based on common sense, it should not have to be learnt as a theoretical subject. It must be integrated into all military levels and become part of the whole basis of military service. Of course, we already carry out a large amount of theoretical work but we should also organize as much practical training as possible. To illustrate this, I always use an example I apply to myself. I can find the manual of any aircraft in the world, read it and learn the theory on how to fly it. But I am sure that nobody will board my plane if they discover that I have no practical experience as a pilot.

However if you ask me to evaluate general IHL implementation in the Russian armed forces, I would say that progress is made every year.

 What can you tell us about the 50th Senezh course?

The 50th Senezh IHL course was held in Solnechnogorsk, in the Moscow area between the end of March and the beginning of April. It brought together 49 participants from five CIS countries, including Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Russian Federation. For two weeks the participants learned the theory of international humanitarian law and put it into practice. " Without this kind of knowledge it is not possible to perform successful military operations and teach soldiers, " - said Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Bibikov, Head of the Vystrel Military Training Centre.

In his address to the participants at the closing ceremony, Bill Bowie said, " one day you may find yourselves in a rather difficult situation. You may have five minutes or even less time to take a decision that might be investigated afterwards for months by legal advisors. Of course, your actions will depend on the specific situation but you always have to remember that your decision will affect people's lives. Once you know that, it is essential to remember the main principle of humanity. "