Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Wars must not break law of humanity

By Didier Burkhalter and Peter Maurer (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-22 07:41

One hundred and fifty years ago to the day, the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field was adopted, enshrining the idea in international law that even in times of war, a certain degree of humanity must be preserved. Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which together helped to secure acceptance for international humanitarian law on the world stage at that time, are now calling for stricter compliance with this principle, as there remains a lack of effective mechanisms for encouraging compliance around the globe.

Today's wars have little in common with the battles of the 19th century. The fighting has gradually moved from clearly defined battlefields to populated areas. Traditional war between armies of opposing states is the exception, while non-international conflicts have become the norm. Nowadays civilians bear the brunt of armed conflicts.

International humanitarian law has adapted to this change. Appalled by the destruction and suffering caused by World War II, states agreed in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 on comprehensive protection for those who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities - wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians. This cornerstone of international humanitarian law was supplemented in 1977 and 2005 by three additional protocols.

The use of certain weapons, such as biological or chemical weapons, cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines is now widely outlawed. The law has put barriers in place to protect the most vulnerable from the brutality of war. Its implementation has also seen a certain amount of progress, such as in the training of soldiers or in the prosecution of the worst war crimes thanks in particular to the founding of the International Criminal Court.

Nevertheless, every day we receive horrific reports and pictures from around the world that bear witness to unspeakable suffering in armed conflicts. All too often, serious breaches of international humanitarian law are the cause of this suffering. Underlying it all is our collective failure. The Contracting States undertook in Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 "to respect and to ensure respect" for these Conventions "in all circumstances". Thus far, however, they have failed to give themselves the resources required to keep their promises. International humanitarian law has since its conception lacked mechanisms for encouraging effective compliance. This impotence has often meant death and destruction for those affected by war.

The principles of international humanitarian law apply universally. However, constant effort is required, as there is no guarantee that they will perdure. A right that is regularly violated without provoking any clear response is likely to lose its validity over time. The consequences for the victims of armed conflicts do not bear thinking about.

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