Yves Sandoz


Yves Sandoz
Director of Law and Communications
International Committee of the Red Cross

The end of a century—especially the end of a millennium—is a good time to ask questions and to question things. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cannot but contribute to the debate on the world and its future that has started in many forums. As 12 August 1999 marks the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, its contribution to this reflection logically focuses on humanitarian law and action.

The first question one might ask on this subject is whether we really should celebrate the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

Certainly, the Geneva Conventions constituted a considerable and almost unhoped-for legislative development at the time they were adopted. Considerable, because they improved on the previous Conventions on the wounded, sick, shipwrecked and prisoners of war. But above all because of the introduction of a Convention for the protection of civilians and a common measure in all the Conventions for the protection of victims of internal conflicts, two innovations of great importance.

Almost unhoped-for, for it required great skill to have these Conventions adopted at the propitious moment. Of course, the emotion roused by the end of the Second World War highlighted the need to give better protection to civilians, and the cruelty of conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War showed the usefulness of establishing certain rules for internal conflicts. But just after the adoption of the United Nations Charter, there was great reticence at the thought of regulating war, which there was an effort to proscribe. And when it was realized that the UN would be unable to equip itself with the means of guaranteeing peace, the premises of the cold war were already making all multilateral negotiation difficult. The challenge was overcome however and the Geneva Conventions were adopted, to be completed nearly 30 years later by two additional Protocols.

But one cannot celebrate this anniversary without some reservation, for one can never be fully satisfied with texts that aim to protect war victims: there is in fact no such thing as a "beautiful" war, and one would always wish to protect better, help better, do more. The Geneva Conventions have no doubt saved the lives or alleviated the sufferings of thousands of persons for whom they were a symbol of hope, but they have not prevented the massacre of civilians, rape, pillage, prisoners being tortured, families being torn apart...

Now is a time for questions: are these texts still valid? Should they be developed? Certainly, humanitarian law must not remain frozen and must adapt to the problems of our times. The new awareness of the problem of anti-personnel mines and the legislative results achieved in this respect, or that which has led to the banning of blinding weapons are good examples of this. The repatriation of prisoners, the control of rescue operations, a more precise definition of what military objectives are in the light of recent experience; these too are areas that would merit clarification, if not development.

However, it must be recognized that ,the essential problem is primarily the application of the existing texts. To this effect, the ICRC has made considerable efforts in the last few years to foster a better knowledge of the bases of international humanitarian law by encouraging armed forces to include this subject in their training programmes, by seeking to introduce the teaching of its principles in schools, by creating consultancy Services to help States, in peacetime, to take the necessary measures, particularly as regards legislation.

Reflecting on its action, the ICRC has also Identified the challenges it faces in trying to achieve its main ambition, to carry out its activities of protection and assistance on the battlefields, close to the victims. It has understood that the two greatest challenges are in fact closely linked to the respect for international humanitarian law. The first is the weakening of States, many of which are becoming incapable of enforcing their laws. The second is the rejection of the essential values which international humanitarian law presumes to be universal and intangible.

The weakening of States, or the collapse of public authority in certain situations, inevitably brings with it generalized disorder, the growth of corruption the crumbling of educational structures. In short, it makes any agreement for the operations to be carried out with a minimum of security extremely difficult: humanitarian action becomes dangerous precisely where it is most needed.

In the vast majority of cases, a great deal of imagination in action nevertheless allows new activities to be found: the creation of more than 1,000 "soup-kitchens" during the conflicts in Somalia; the dissemination of the humanitarian message by means of radio serials, pop singers, improvised theatre shows.... It does happen, however, that anarchy leads to paralysis, that 'one can no longer find ways of operating that guarantee a minimum degree of security to the delegates....

The rejection of the values that are fundamental to humanitarian law has led to policies of harassment or expulsion, through ."ethnic cleansing" or genocide. The ambition of international humanitarian law and humanitarian organizations to operate outside politics —the very principle of neutrality, often misunderstood—can no longer be achieved. In such a case, in fact, politics invade the zone of what should be outside them, humanitarian aid becoming an obstacle to these sinister projects.

What can be done in the face of these challenges?

In thinking about this, one discovers the very great timeliness today of the Geneva Conventions, not in the detail of their numerous articles, but in the principles on which they are founded.

In reality, the formulation of international humanitarian law consisted in seeking a consensus on certain values that are so essential that they must be observed in all circumstances. More than those of human rights as a whole (which are not fully accepted worldwide), the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law are thus the indication of this minimum consensus reached by the international community. Without opening an academic debate on this subject—which it would merit—I would define as follows the three main pillars of international humanitarian law: compassion for those who are suffering, which is the basis of the humanitarian act and the obligation to give medical and humane treatment to the wounded; respect at all times for human dignity, which is expressed notably by the indiscriminate treatment of all victims and by the rights granted to prisoners and interned persons; finally, solidarity, embodied in the obligation to undertake rescue operations for populations deprived of essential goods.

Are not compassion for the afflicted,. respect for human dignity and solidarity the fundamental values we need to face the great problems of our times—social, economic or ecological?

The Red Cross wishes to be neutral—even at the religious level—so as to be accepted by all. But this neutrality rests on values that we presume to be universally recognized. And the Red Cross is not neutral with regard to those values on which international humanitarian law is founded and on which its action is based. The erosion of these values, the rise of racism, the plight of the socially excluded, indifference to the sufferings of others should be a warning, for we cannot expect values that are scorned in peacetime to be respected in war. The Red Cross must therefore embark on a campaign which may be. considered a moral one, when it is a matter of defending these values that are fundamental to its mission.

Is it siding with the Churches in this? I do not think so, in the sense that Churches base their message on religious conviction, which is not the case of international humanitarian law, even if it defends each person's right to practise his or her religion.

Yet the values on which international humanitarian law has been built coincide for the most part with those accepted by the majority of the great religions. Without dwelling on any one of these in particular, the Red Cross can therefore seek the support of the great spiritual and moral authorities of our times. The 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions gives it this opportunity. For this event, the ICRC has organized a wide-scale investigation among the populations of war-torn countries. Focusing on their perception of humanitarian law and the hopes they place in it, this survey is entitled "The Voices of War". These voices of war will form the basis of a solemn appeal launched by a dozen international figures on 12 August 1999. On this anniversary of the Geneva Conventions they will ask the world to fight relentlessly against the scourge of war and to respect the principles of humanitarian law in wartime so as to prepare for the return of peace, and in peacetime so as to build a peaceful world. Furthermore, in the year 2000 the results of this study will serve as the basis of a vast reflection on the best way to ensure respect for humanitarian law, and to develop it. Such a reflection, with the great moral and religious authorities of today, would certainly be favourable for finding a better way to unite the international community in support of the essential values on which humanitarian law is founded. The Red Cross and the Churches should therefore lead the way in a dialogue that we hope will be very constructive in the years to come.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
11/18 August 1999, page 5

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