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Workshop on the rules governing military operations

30-06-2009 Statement

Workshop on the international rules governing military operations (Swirmo 2009 ), 29 June - 9 July 2009. Opening speech by Christine Beerli, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Paris, Opening session, Paris, 29 June.

I am delighted to be here in Paris today to open the third workshop on the international rules governing military operations. In fact, I am particularly pleased for two reasons: first, I note that an even greater number of you accepted our invitation this time than last, and second, I am able to welcome you all to this military academy thanks to our host, the French army, which offered to co-organize this event.


"...one of the main aspects of the support ICRC provides to armed forces around the world is to help them transpose their legal obligations into measures that are practical, intelligible and realistic for all combatants. " 
I say event, but it is also an occasion because this workshop was created in 2007 to mark both 100 years of the Hague Conventions on the conduct of hostilities and 30 years of the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions. This summer we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. Since 2007, the workshop has attracted the attention of an increasing number of armed forces in various countries. From the very beginning, this success has been linked to a need shared by all participants: the need to confront their experiences and draw lessons from them in the presence of senior officers from all over the world.

It is the nature of the teaching that makes this workshop distinctive. Every effort is made to use real-life examples. Whether through group exercises or discussion of the most s ensitive matters – during which we do not shy away from thorny issues and dilemmas – we focus on real cases. We are therefore delighted to see that the officers themselves have helped develop this event. There is another reason to be pleased: for the first time, the workshop is being held outside Switzerland.

In order to safeguard the future of this workshop and the development of international humanitarian law, armed forces seeking to fulfil their legal obligations must make the workshop their own: in other words, they must make it the place they go to engage in discussion and debate. For this reason, the ICRC would like the course to be run one year in Switzerland and the next in another country. It is not insignificant that France, a European country, has been the first to respond to our request. I hope that this will be interpreted by other States as a sign of the need to launch, pursue and deepen the process of incorporating international humanitarian law in their armed forces.

The incorporation process is vital. It must take place at all levels and in every domain of an army’s operation. The applicable law, known as the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law, is a subject which goes beyond mere points of law. It concerns our ability to respect human dignity in situations where all too often the end justifies the means.


Being aware of the law and incorporating it in doctrine and training mean nothing if this is not then put into practice in the field. This truth must be constantly repeated. The ICRC does so. You know better than anyone how high a price civilians have paid in the conflicts which have racked the world over the past 50 years. And not just civilians – there are also the combatants who are wounded or sick, or who are no longer participating in the hostilities. Too many people protected by inter national humanitarian law have become targets in the numerous conflicts and other situations of violence which are longstanding or breaking out around us today.

We cannot ignore this reality or underplay its effects, because that would mean accepting, whether we like to or not, that the law does little more than temper our indignation at the unacceptable acts perpetrated during some conflicts. The law is not a fig leaf; nor is it a straitjacket. It is a framework that allows force to be used but prohibits excesses. Although different interpretations are sometimes possible, we cannot sweep aside the provisions limiting the use of certain weapons or illegal methods of warfare.

While the ICRC may stress that it cannot compromise on compliance with the law, this does not prevent us from recognizing that it can sometimes be difficult to apply it. Soldiers have repeatedly expressed a need for the numerous articles from different legal instruments to be translated into concrete mechanisms, clear actions and precise rules. This is how we can guide soldiers in the field and help them avoid confusion or indecision wherever possible.

This is in fact one of the main aspects of the support we provide to armed forces around the world: we help them transpose their legal obligations into measures that are practical, intelligible and realistic for all combatants. This is the message we send to over 160 armies with whom we engage in fruitful (and sometimes challenging) dialogue. In recent years, the ICRC has strengthened its dialogue with the armed forces, whether these are American, NATO, African, Latin American or Asian forces, reminding them that the law of armed conflict was originally created for soldiers, so it is up to them to bring it to life.

If the armed forces take greater account of the rules governing military operations and show greater concern for international humanitarian law, they will be better equipped to incorporate it into their practice and enforce it. This merely requires them to fulfil their obligations. But those who make it a point of honour to do so scrupulously will earn greater legitimacy and respect.

"...soldiers and civilians who have suffered as a direct result of violence linked to armed conflicts may have no faith in the limits that are supposed to protect them. Nevertheless, it is our task to make these limits effective and real, a task which must constantly be addressed with fresh determination." 
The ICRC is present in connection with all the conflicts and other situations of violence afflicting the world today, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Israel and the occupied and autonomous territories, Chad, Pakistan, Sudan and the Philippines. The list is very long. In each of these countries, ICRC staff work constantly with the government authorities, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and other humanitarian organizations.

But it goes without saying that our preferred interlocutors in the field remain weapon bearers: the armed forces, the police, the various armed groups, and private military and security companies. All parties to conflict are of interest to the ICRC. We would not have access to the people needing help or be able to obtain security guarantees for humanitarian workers if we did not talk to those who control all or part of the territory concerned.

Whenever security conditions permit, we establish contact with non-State armed groups. This is not without its risks, but the ICRC aims to maintain and develop relationships with all those who are participating in a conflict. We also encourage them to do their best to take all the provisions of the law on board and to comply with them.

This way of working is not always understood, but if a party is open to dialogue, it will not be turned away. It is our way of gaining access to the victims of a conflict; it enables us to save lives. The ICRC does not work for or against any party. It seeks to establish links with all those involved in a conflict, and this for one reason only – a reason whose validity has been borne out a thousand times over – this is what ensures the organization’s neutrality and impartiality. The only direct beneficiaries of the ICRC’s work are the people adversely affected by conflict, that is, civilians and those no longer participating in the hostilities.

Operational dialogue is the basis for, and the core of, our daily activities. It constitutes the modus operandi of the ICRC when it comes to weapon bearers, this together with supporting armies’ efforts to integrate the law. These are the two keys which give us access to those who are suffering and who have nothing else to shield them against the numerous violent attacks to which they are subjected.


On 24 June 1859, almost precisely 150 years ago today, a battle was fought in Solferino in northern Italy between Franco-Sardinian troops led by Napoleon the Third and Victor Emmanuel the Second, and Austrian troops led by Emperor Francis Joseph. The clash left thousands dead and thousands more wounded. A Swiss businessman who happened to be in the area was horrified by the suffering of the survivors and came to their aid, helped by residents of a nearby village. It was a simple gesture of humanity and fraternity, and it led to the foundation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

I do not mention this to enhance the legend of Henry Dunant, which has no need of it. I have a wh olly different purpose concerning a very simple question which has been pertinent for the last century and a half and which I am keen to share with you. It is the following. Are we sure that there will be no more – that there are no more – Solferinos today? Are we sure that we will no longer see, that we no longer see, thousands of wounded soldiers suffering in agony because they need medical care? If not wounded soldiers, then are we sure that unprotected civilians have not taken their place? What if combatants have been replaced by the civilian population in today’s Solferinos? We only have to look around us to see that this question requires careful thought before answering.

The purpose of this workshop is precisely that: to stimulate thought, to promote greater understanding of the legal framework surrounding military operations, and to explain the best way of integrating this law in combat training and military procedures. Our preferred method is to deliver a short presentation on a given subject, followed by an exercise, then discussion of a case study. In the same way as your predecessors last year, you will share your respective experiences and like them, you will, I hope, recognize the relevance of the law of armed conflict and the applicable human rights rules.

Recognizing the value of these rules is a first step, and one which has already been taken by most modern and professional armies. But once the theory has been accepted, military operations must be brought into line. This transposition or translation work is vital. It introduces a key element into the experience of modern conflicts: that of limits imposed by reason and by the law.

Of course, this is nothing new, and soldiers and civilians who have suffered as a direct result of violence linked to armed conflicts may have no faith in the limits that are supposed to protect them. Nevertheless, it is our task to mak e these limits effective and real, a task which must constantly be addressed with fresh determination.

We share this determination with you. Some of you will soon undoubtedly encounter the ICRC in the field, and you will see that our delegates, as part of their mandate, take their mission very much to heart, just as the armed forces do in fulfilling their own mandate. The concept of service, which is the cornerstone of military and humanitarian institutions, favours common understandings, but also clearly draws the boundary lines. Without being impervious to each other, these particular fields of activity have different objectives. But with a spirit of mutual respect for our respective tasks, our dialogue will take on the meaning that we defend here: ensuring that human dignity has a chance to survive even in the most inhumane conflicts.

Thank you for your attention and for your commitment to implementing international humanitarian law.