• Send page
  • Print page

Armed forces and IHL: a "necessary dialogue between law and force"

21-08-2007 Statement

The ICRC's director of communication, Yves Daccord, says work is needed to mould humanitarian law into the bricks and mortar of military doctrine, education and training. He was speaking at the close of a major workshop in Geneva, grouping senior officers from 60 countries, co-organised with the Swiss army. SWIRMO – Senior Workshop on International Rules governing Military Operations – Geneva, 6-17 August 2007


Distinguished course director, class leaders and defence attachés, ladies and gentlemen,

The international course on the rules governing military operations that is ending today will remain a key moment in the relations between the ICRC and the armed forces you represent. It is not the first such workshop that the ICRC has organized for members of the military, but it is the one that stands out by virtue of the number of countries invited to take part and the high rank of its participants.

It can also be distinguished from the previous such events in terms of its ambitious objectives, as it is a concrete embodiment of the necessary dialogue between Law and Force.

Today, we are struck by the close proximity of the military and humanitarian agencies on the ground. Both are striving to do their jobs to the best of their capabilities. But a conflict is not an ordinary situation. War, and you know it better than anyone, is not conducive to moderate judgements.

"The ICRC has taken on the task of engaging in dialogue with all weapons bearers who take part in conflicts or other situations of violence" 

That is why it is essential for us to co ntinue working towards a better knowledge of each other, while continuing to respect one another's mandates On this unstable planet we call home, we are increasingly brought into contact with one another. For our part, we aspire to develop and deepen these relationships in the light of the fundamental principles of the Red Cross, which have not wavered for almost 140 years: neutrality, impartiality, independence. These principles are at the heart and at the root of our work.

International humanitarian law is the terrain of common concern which we must cultivate according to our particular spheres of responsibility and which we must take care of together. Law that is weak and does not easily command respect could have dire consequences, not only for those it sets out to protect but also for those who are called upon to apply it.

Over the past two weeks, you, as officers of your armed forces, have focused your attention on many aspects of this body of law. You have addressed the conduct of hostilities and the behaviour of soldiers in the heat of battle; you have discussed situations of violence other than armed conflicts and studied questions relating to occupation; you have pitted your knowledge and wits against each other in exercises dealing with specific scenarios. In short, you have worked intensively on your understanding of IHL and how to translate it into practice in the theatre of operations.

During the time you have spent here together, you have expressed a wide range of viewpoints and opinions. Convergent approaches have emerged, but also divergent ones. There have been agreements and disagreements on the right way to understand particular points contained in the Geneva Conventions. 

Be that as it may, the important thing is that there was a real debate and that each experience provided the starting point for your own interpretation.

The important thing is that questions were asked and arose naturally out of events.

The important thing, at the end of the day, is to realize that in a conflict nothing can be taken for granted, and that protection of civilians and civilian property remains a priority.

We have taken a first step with this high-level meeting in Geneva, but if we want the tremendous work accomplished here to bear fruit, and the knowledge acquired to become a living inspiration rather than a dead letter, we shall now have to work on building the law into the bricks and mortar of military doctrine, education and training, not forgetting the need for a clear and effective system of sanctions, without which the edifice will not stand firm.

It is you, ladies and gentlemen, once you are back at your posts, who will have the important task of sharing your discoveries and observations with your fellow officers and members of your forces, and dispelling any doubts that some of them may still harbour. 

The fact that this course went well is a sign of our shared interest in the subject matter, but that should not be the only criterion for judging its success. This workshop also created expectations and perhaps even a hope, the hope that the officers who attended it will feel a strong responsibility to convince their peers of the importance of going further towards integration of the law into doctrine and procedures. A follow-up to this course is therefore necessary if this impulse is to be converted into a sustainable momentum. That, and nothing less, will be the measure of its success. 

While here, you have pondered on the pertinence of international humanitarian law, the practical significance of integrating it, and what applying it in military operations really means. You have deliberated on the actions that you think most appropriate in the theatre of operations in order to spare and protect those who are not or no longer taking part in the hostilities.

Thanks to the Swiss army which did the groundwork, you were also able to spend all yesterday taking part in an exercise that reflects the situations in which IHL applies. If they are to approximate to reality, these kinds of exercises have to take in the range of situations in which civilians become involved, either deliberately or otherwise. 

It is this precise and painstaking work of translating legal standards into appropriate acts and conduct on the ground that the ICRC has now started to focus on in its efforts to spread knowledge and understanding of international humanitarian law.

This practical approach, based on exercises illustrating all kinds of conflict situations, is designed to reduce to a minimum the grey areas and multiple interpretations that a purely theoretical approach to integration cannot help but produce.

It is your responsibility to convey this message to your armed forces: the men who find themselves in a combat situation must know where the line is to be drawn between what is lawful and what is not; they must know what the law says and be capable of applying it. But for that, they have to have clear procedures and clear orders. There must be a clear chain of command and professionals who know how to act within the specific framework of a given situation and its requirements.

"Operational contacts and the promotion of IHL through its integration into military doctrine and procedures are the two pillars of the dialogue that the ICRC conducts with weapons bearers. This dialogue is the key to more effective protection for civilians. " 
The ICRC has taken on the task of engaging in dialogue with all weapons bearers who take part in conflicts or other situations of violence: armed for ces, police, military police, non-State armed groups and private military companies.

The armed forces are particularly important as they are our main partner in this dialogue.

In the field, ICRC delegates conduct an operational dialogue on a day-to-day basis with soldiers from many countries that are beset by fighting and violence: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories, the Philippines, Sudan, to name only some of the most high-profile. These contacts are absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of aid workers and their ability to go on working to help the victims.

Operational contacts and the promotion of IHL through its integration into military doctrine and procedures are the two pillars of the dialogue that the ICRC conducts with weapons bearers. This dialogue is the key to more effective protection for civilians.

You have a crucial role to play in this protection effort, not as auxiliaries of the ICRC but as professionals in the service of the Law, as the Law can do nothing without the support of Force, but Force finds its justification in the Law. 

In the immediate term, however, we are keen to build on the exchanges of the past few days by facilitating contacts among all of us. To do that, we are planning to create a forum on the web. Through that channel, we shall be able to send you information on the ICRC's work throughout the world, documentation on international humanitarian law and other texts in response to your questions. 

This network will enable you to maintain links with the ICRC and your fellow participants in the spirit of openness and debate that prevailed during this course. 

We shall of course continue to discuss with you the rules that govern military operations and help you to transpose them into practice.

Effort s to ensure that international humanitarian law is respected naturally include instruction and training, but they will depend first and foremost on political will and on a firm commitment by institutions and individuals: seeing that IHL is complied with is also one of the duties of a soldier. 

I would like to conclude by thanking all of you for responding positively to the invitation extended by the ICRC and the Swiss army, and for your real involvement during this workshop. I hope very much that the initiative will be repeated and that other institutions – I am thinking in particular about armed forces – will come forward, next year and in subsequent years, to host, with the ICRC's support, a workshop whose aim is quite simply to enable members of the military to identify fully with a body of law from which they were the first to benefit.