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Is the law of war suited to today's conflicts?

21-09-2010 Interview

The ICRC has just completed a two-year study on the current state of international humanitarian law. In this interview, ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger talks about the study's main conclusions. He highlights four areas where international humanitarian law should be strengthened.

 See also: Strengthening legal protection for the victims of armed conflict, statement by the president of the ICRC.

  ©ICRC/T. A. Voeten/cd-e-00864    
Displaced people in Kisbati camp, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.    
  ©ICRC/T. A. Voeten/af-e-00922    
The main prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan.    
  ©ICRC/F. Pagetti/lb-e-01216    
A cluster bomb victim in Tyre, Lebanon.    

What was the ICRC’s objective in undertaking such a study?  

The study should be viewed in connection with our core mission of enhancing protection for victims of armed conflict.

The study was aimed at identifying and understanding, more precisely and clearly, the humanitarian problems arising from armed conflict and devising possib le legal solutions to them in terms of legal development or clarification.

Because the nature, causes and consequences of armed conflict have evolved over the years, it is important to engage in dialogue within the international community to determine how to better address the current humanitarian needs of armed-conflict victims. Our study represents an attempt to take stock of this reality and to initiate a dialogue, which we see as essential, with a view to strengthening the existing legal framework.

What are the study's conclusions?  

One of the main conclusions is that any attempt to strengthen international humanitarian law should build on existing law, which remains an appropriate framework for regulating the actions of the parties involved in armed conflict, including non-international armed conflict.

In most cases, what is required to improve the situation of conflict victims is greater compliance with the existing legal framework, rather than the adoption of new rules. If international humanitarian law were scrupulously adhered to, most current issues of humanitarian concern would quite simply not exist.

However, the study also showed that international humanitarian law, in its current state, especially in non-international armed conflict, does not always offer satisfactory legal responses to the needs observed on the ground. More precisely, we came to the conclusion that new responses under international humanitarian law must be devised to better protect people deprived of liberty in non-international armed conflict, people displaced within their own countries (IDPs), and the natural environment, and also to help better enforce international humanitarian law and make reparations to those who suffer the effe cts of violations.

What are the next steps?  

We want to engage in dialogue with States, and with other parties concerned, on the study's conclusions and possible further action that should be taken. This will be a good opportunity to find out to what extent our view of the humanitarian situation and the challenges currently facing international humanitarian law is shared by others.

In the coming months we intend to engage in consultations with States. Based on these consultations, the ICRC will decide on how to proceed further. Ultimately, only States have the capacity to bring about improvements to international law.