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70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

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by René Wadlow

August 12, 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 Protocols Additional are central instruments of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Today, many WFM program priorities are dedicated to building on and strengthening IHL, with the intention that the rule of law progressively develops to supersede an international system that is based on war.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions were drawn up in light of the violations of earlier humanitarian law during the Second World War. The first Geneva Convention was developed in 1864, the time of the birth of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The aims of the ICRC, as a neutral party in armed conflicts, were the development and universalization of humanitarian law. The ICRC also played a role as an intermediary between victims and States.

The Geneva Conventions have evolved as the nature of armed conflict has evolved. The 1977 Protocols Additional were a response to the war in Vietnam, the greater number of conflicts that could be called “civil wars,” and the greater use of armed militias that were not regular military forces. In the 1977 discussions, there was greater awareness of the conditions for humanitarian norms as they pertained to refugees and internally displaced persons.

Closely related to the Geneva Conventions is a second tradition of international humanitarian law, what may be called “the Hague Tradition” growing out of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. This tradition places its emphasis on banning the use of certain types of weapons. The 1925 Geneva Convention prohibiting the use of poison gas was a direct result of poison gas use in World War I. Since then, there have been treaties banning the use of chemical weapons, land mines and cluster munitions.

There are two other sources or traditions in the development of international humanitarian law. One is respect for human rights provisions as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent conventions focusing on specific aspects of the Universal Declaration.

While the provisions of the Universal Declaration are to be upheld at all times, there are highly visible and widespread violations during armed conflicts.

The fourth tradition is the development of the 1936 Roerich Peace Pact to protect cultural heritage during armed conflicts. Signed in Washington, D.C. in 1996 this was a Pan-American Union Treaty. Its provisions served as the basis of the 1935 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Goods.

The 1954 Treaty has been progressively enriched by the development of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage sites. In 2017 the International Criminal Court began hearings in the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al- Mahdi, accused of levelling medieval shrines in Mali that had been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

These traditions of international humanitarian law have been highlighted in a number of UN General Assembly resolutions, for example, the Basic Principles of Protection for Civilian Populations in Time of Armed Conflict, Resolution 2625 (1971).

Thus, the provisions of international humanitarian law are well developed and cover many issues that are likely to arise in armed conflicts. However, two major challenges remain. One is that the provisions of international humanitarian law are not well known, neither by the military nor by possible victims. Education concerning international humanitarian law is necessary. During the 1969 – 1971 Nigeria -Biafra War, I had been a member of an ICRC working group. This war was the first war among Africans without the involvement of a colonial power. There were many violations during the war, including the use of starvation as military policy. After the end of the war, the need for teaching international humanitarian law was obvious. I helped in the preparation of a text book using African examples that the Red Cross used fairly widely in Africa. The teaching of international humanitarian law in the context of local cultures and values is still a challenge almost fifty years later.

The second and more important challenge is that international humanitarian law is not respected, even when its provisions are known. The current conscious violation of international humanitarian law including some of the oldest provisions – not attacking medical facilities or not shooting prisoners – has been widespread in armed conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. More than preparing handbooks for the military and the militias is needed.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Transcend: Art and Peace Network.

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