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Geneva Conventions and 21st-century combatants

Militiamen of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) easily mingle with civilians in Mogadishu, Somalia, 20 June 2006. The courts' militia also acted as local police forces, being paid by local businesses to reduce crime.
Militiamen of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) easily mingle with civilians in Mogadishu, Somalia (Abdimalik Yusuf/IRIN)

To mark the 150th anniversary of the International Red Cross Movement IRIN spoke with humanitarian and legal experts about how conflict has changed in the 21st century and to what degree the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols stand up when it comes to protecting civilians in conflict.



Is protecting civilians in the interest of modern warring parties?



Mary Kaldor is a professor and director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her books include The Imaginary War (1990), New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (1999) and Global Civil Society: An Answer to War (2003).



The Geneva Conventions are not in the interest of most contemporary warring parties; that is the difference with [the Battle of] Solferino. But it is very important to counter [limit the actions of] warring parties nonetheless.



However, while international humanitarian law (IHL) is hugely important, another side of the coin would be that it legitimizes war by making it more acceptable. [Under IHL] attacks on civilians if committed by a state for what is deemed to be a greater good become acceptable, thus legitimizing violence against civilians in some circumstances.



What we are seeing is a groundswell in public opinion against violence. It is played out in UN Security Council resolutions, politics and the media. [Outsiders now think less of intervening on one side and more of intervening to stop the violence.] That’s progress.



Knut Doermann is a legal adviser at the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva and is author of Elements of War Crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.



If a non-state actor is fighting on an open battlefield with state armed forces that are mightier and have more forceful weaponry and intelligence, then the non-state actor could not survive, which might drive them to intermingle with civilian populations, putting civilians under immense threat. Under these kinds of situations a warring party might not want to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.



Hugo Slim is a humanitarian scholar and visiting fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at Oxford University and author of the 2008 book, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War.












[Lebanon] A young Lebanese boy with his mother try to cope with continuous Israeli air-raids, Beirut, 20 July 2006. At least 306 people have been killed and 500,000 civilians displaced in Lebanon, following the week-long clashes between Israel and Hizboll

A Lebanese boy with his mother during clashes between Israel and Hizbollah in 2006
Haitham Moussawi/IRIN
[Lebanon] A young Lebanese boy with his mother try to cope with continuous Israeli air-raids, Beirut, 20 July 2006. At least 306 people have been killed and 500,000 civilians displaced in Lebanon, following the week-long clashes between Israel and Hizboll
http://www.irinnews.org/
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Geneva Conventions and 21st-century combatants
[Lebanon] A young Lebanese boy with his mother try to cope with continuous Israeli air-raids, Beirut, 20 July 2006. At least 306 people have been killed and 500,000 civilians displaced in Lebanon, following the week-long clashes between Israel and Hizboll


Photo: Haitham Moussawi/IRIN
A Lebanese boy with his mother during clashes between Israel and Hizbollah in 2006

Morality is always a mixture of self-interest and feasibility. …Wars where parties abide by strict rules are in the minority. But that does not mean that protecting civilians is a naïve concept – rather it is a very important ethic that we need to keep in the frame.



In the last 15 years there has been a huge rise in international consciousness about civilian protection. Nonetheless, the last time such a groundswell occurred in Europe was in the 1920s and 1930s, just before Europe experienced its biggest war. So we cannot assume we are evolving towards an approach to warfare that makes it civilized.



Francoise Saulnier is legal director of Médecins Sans Frontières and has been framing the NGO’s legal responsibility in conflict for 18 years. She is author of The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law.



The core of the Geneva Conventions is…the common decision of warring parties to contain the logic of destruction and to limit the means of warfare. Limiting attacks on civilians is just as much about protecting them as it is about keeping wars under control.



There is…a false idea that governmental armies are more likely than rebel or guerrilla groups to respect civilians. Quite the reverse is often true; rebel groups often have more to gain in abiding by humanitarian law thus being able to claim the status of combatant.



In some cases governmental armies take advantage of the fact that rebels hide behind civilian populations, to launch indiscriminate attacks in the name of restoring peace and order.



This being said, limiting the violence against civilians is in the interest of warring parties if they want to be recognized as legitimate and also if they want to limit the hostility of the population against them. Rebel groups also have a more direct interest in safeguarding the population because they may need their support.



In asymmetric wars, the hostility of the [civilian] population can be the main threat against a party to the conflict, which is why we see hearts and minds activities to gain [civilians’] support or at least neutrality.



aj/np

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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