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SWIRMO: vital importance of respect for the laws of war

21-08-2007 Statement

Closing speech by Brig Gen Erwin Dahinden, head of International Relations (Defence), Swiss Armed Forces. SWIRMO – Senior Workshop on International Rules governing Military Operations – , 17 August 2007.


Dear Guests, Generals, Ladies, Gentlemen

For about two weeks, Les Vernets barracks have become an exemplary place for productive international cooperation in a peaceful, open atmosphere – thanks to you, dear participants, and of course also thank to you, dear workshop director and dear class leaders. You have discussed a number of important and also sensitive issues. You have shown that military professionals are able to come to practical results based on common sense. I congratulate you for that.

I am also convinced that this unique experience of practical work and discussions about international rules governing military operations in a set-up of more than 50 nations representing five continents will have a positive influence on your future professional and military career. You have made contacts and you have at your disposal a network of colleagues from so many nations. It is now on you to make use of it whenever there is an opportunity.

Let me now share with you a few thoughts on the following three topics:

1. Today's global threats and dangers call for global response: the quest for international peace and stability requires our ability to cooperate on the basis of common rules and values.

2. International rules and laws are indi spensable road signs and corner stones for international order; they cannot be violated without high costs and long term consequences.

3. Modern armed and security forces can contribute a lot to a safer world. But this will only be possible if they operate in compliance with the norms and rules of international law.



 1. Today's global threats and dangers call for global response: the quest for international peace and stability requires our ability to cooperate on the basis of common rules and values.  

The last two decades have brought dramatic changes due to new technology.

  • Modern information technology has enabled us to share news and pictures about an event with the entire globe without any delay. The omnipresence of media is a fact of our time.

  • International trade and quest for resources have increased in an unprecedented manner. New economic powers are rising; consumption of essential goods is ever increasing. The consequences could be shortages of energy, water and natural resources. Mankind will rapidly have to deal with the consequences of climatic change and environment-al pollution.

  • International crime and international terrorism are threatening global security and economic growth. Our State borders become more porous than ever, allowing the flow of everything from drugs, infectious diseases to terrorism.

  • In certain parts of our world, we witness the dissolution of order and stability from below: We observe the emergence of " State-free spaces " , characterized by privatized violence. The law of the stronger dictates the daily li fe in those areas, where the State has disappeared. This is a nightmare for civilians, elderly, women, children, but also for Peace Keepers and humanitarian actors.

To cope with the new challenges and dangers, we need more international cooperation and dialogue, based on respect for internationally recognized rules and values. International law and its respect are opening the gateway to peace and stability, a condition all inhabitants of our world wish – and deserve – to live in.

Professional military and security forces can become an important stabilizing element, if they know, respect and fully implement fundamental international rules such as the law of armed conflict and human rights. As representatives of the State power, members of armed and security forces should operate impartially and with fairness, always respecting the law in force. In a situation where they face threats posed by irregular forces and armed banditry who are not playing by the rules, this is not easy to achieve. In these circumstances, moral integrity and example shown by the commanders make all the difference.

Let me make it clear: legally binding rules shall not be seen by military leaders as an obstacle for effective mission accomplishment, to the contrary. Professional leaders of the armed and security forces must see the rules as integral part of the mission. The mission is not accomplished, if binding rules have been violated or neglected.

SWIRMO has set an important landmark. I firmly believe, with this knowledge we all can improve much, within our system and to the benefit of it.



 2. International rules and laws are indispensable road signs and corner stones for international order; they can not be violated without costs and long term consequences.  

The value of fun damental norms and the challenge they are posing to military personnel is often underestimated, especially by inexperienced young leaders. Norms were not set up to hinder military commanders in the accomplishment of their mission. They were adopted to prevent commanders from causing unnecessary harm, destruction and violence.

At many instances, the law of armed conflict an human rights are violated to gain a tactical advantage, e.g. by authorizing practices amounting to inhuman treatment or torture to obtain information from detainees. In doing that, commanders loose the strategic objective out of sight, which might be lost: you can not defend democracy and the rule of law if you violate the rules established by it.

The political end state most of the current crisis response operations is peace and stability as well as rule of law, a precondition for economic recovery. How would you be able to reach that, if your actions speak another language?

Violations of fundamental rules can never be undone or compensated with another humanitarian gesture. Therefore, correct behaviour of military personnel even under difficult circumstances is a value, which shows its advantage especially when the guns are silent. The true value of lawful conduct during war becomes apparent at the very moment, when reconstruction and return of refugees should start. If the purpose of engaging armed forces is to establish and maintain peace, there is no way to have enduring peace by violating the fundamental rules of human beings.

SWIRMO has provided you with useful material which will enable you to

act in this direction:

  • To convince the cynical ones, those who think that international law would be a good thing, but that the enemy will never obey those rules. They must get answers why it is worth following the rules under all circumstances and it is in our interest not to become engaged in a negative circle.

  • To convince the young leaders: they should be assisted in becoming strong defenders of the lawful behaviour.

  • To convince your superiors: they might have the key to impose teaching, training and implementation of the rules, because they have the authority and the power to do it. Running up this second point means we do not only need the rules, we also have to follow them.

Let me now come to the third point.



 3. Modern armed and security forces may contribute a lot to a safer world. This will only be possible, if they operate in compliance with the norms and rules of international law.  

Many of our countries are active in Peace Operations. To be engaged in a Peace operation is an act of solidarity, by States and by individuals. Peace operations shall help to overcome conflicts and to find political solutions. The role of armed and security forces is essential, because they are able, due to their appearance, weapons and manpower, to bring stability, to silence arms.

The tasks they perform are manifold:

  • classic peacekeeping with separation of former belligerents;

  • assistance in nation building with disarmament tasks, weapons storing or border control;

  • training activities to the benefit of local military and security forces, especially in the standards, rules and norms which were presented during SWIRMO.

And they perform this task with regard to State and, even more difficult, also to Non-State actors. But they cannot perform it just anyhow. A UN Peace mission can only be accomplished successfully if the rules and norms of IHL and human rights are respected by that force. That is wh y the UN SG issued a bulletin to UN Peace keeping forces on the applicability of International humanitarian law. That is also why the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has undertaken and is still undertaking great efforts to stop misbehaviour and human rights violations by peace-keeping personnel. SWIRMO must be seen as a valuable tool to provide you with training ideas and material to be in line with UN standards.

The existence of clear standards is the first step. As experience shows, the more challenging part is their implementation in practice. That is where SWIRMO comes in. I would like to encourage you to check your countries training schedules, instruction materials, doctrine and procedures. Do they reflect the standards as you learned here? What could be improved? How could you best proceed to match the standards?

In the aftermath of the tragic Tsunami disaster, military and civilian cooperation to assist the victims around the Indian Ocean has reached an unprecedented level. Suddenly, it was possible that military formations of former rivals cooperated efficiently and peacefully. How much mistrust could be overcome and how many lives could be saved during this operation.

We should learn of this positive example and prepare ourselves for more and better cooperation. Be it in the framework of UN Peace operations, in disaster relief or through regional organizations. The knowledge of common standards and procedures is a first step; it helps building up trust. In the Euro – Atlantic region, the program “Partnership for Peace” has contributed since more than a decade essentially to reduce tensions and to build up knowledge and capacity to cooperate.

With SWIRMO, the ICRC has opened up to all continents. I believe, that this is promising and that this initiative should be further developed. Switzerland, and in particular the Swiss Armed Forces are able and willing to contribute. We have developed workshops and exercises for comma nders and legal advisers as well as for military medical personnel. We have offered to assist States in the production of audiovisual training tools such as our LOAC CD ROM.

Let us continue on this track, this could be our contribution to implement Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions: “Respect and ensure respect” for international rules governing military operations.

This means it is not enough to accept rules and to have the intention to follow them, we have to undertake the necessary efforts to make the application feasible at any level of our armed forces!

Generals, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now time to express my thanks. Let me first congratulate and thank the ICRC for having initiated this important workshop. I am convinced that SWIRMO should not be a singular event. We should continue on that track, because such important information must be shared. I thank the workshop director, MGen Manuel Almeida, and his teaching staff. You have provided the attendants with a training tool and led them through the various practical exercises and discussions. Without you, the objectives of SWIRMO would not have been achieved.

Last but not least, let me thank you, the participants, for having accepted our invitation and for having shared your outstanding experience within your group. I am convinced that aside the hard work in classes, many contacts could be made; it would be very nice if some of them continue thus creating a SWIRMO-network.

Now, at the end of this workshop, I hope that you return home safely taking with you good memories of Switzerland and Geneva.

Thank you very much.