Civilian Protection and International Humanitarian Law: Marking the 70th Anniversary of 1949 Geneva Conventions with ICRC President

The All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) held a Parliamentary Roundtable with Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, on 6 March 2019, to explore the impact of the 1949 Geneva Conventions in protecting civilians & civilian infrastructure in armed conflict.

We would like to thank Liz McInnes MP for chairing this event.

The speaker was: Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The main points raised were:

  • The ICRC is at the frontlines of conflict and has practical experience of the respect and non-respect for the provisions of the Geneva Conventions (GCs).
  • The ICRC has a mandate through the GCs to support state and non-state actors in their respect of InternationaI Humanitarian Law (IHL). This model is a possible pathway for the future, because of the very real limitations of international bodies governed by states, which then have to regulate states and state practice.
  • His last field trip was to Mosul, Iraq, and when the level of destruction is seen, one can’t help but ask what happened here.
  • When talking to people in Syria and Iraq, their main preoccupation is missing family members. 70 years ago, GC drafters had thought about how to deal with missing people, and developed detailed regulations.
  • IHL and the GCs definitely remain relevant, though may no longer be complete.
  • IHL is consensus-based law, based on reciprocity: one treats detainees humanely because one expects the other side to do so. But trust has now broken down between belligerents, which is a challenge.
  • GCs are a practical tool which guides states and non-state actors, with provisions to protect health facilities and schools included for good reason, though their targeting is a big concern today.
  • Proportionality, distinction and precaution limit the use of force; these three principles remain highly relevant.
  • Engagement with states and non-state actors on these fundamental principles remains critical. The ICRC deals with 130+ armed forces, as regards training, operational reviews and dialogue, as well as having contact with 250+ non-state armed groups, to stress the importance of respect for IHL.
  • Public perception is that IHL law is not respected and therefore irrelevant. But despite all the violations, it is interesting to note how many military operations are conducted with respect for IHL.
  • Urban warfare and counter-terrorism operations are big issues of concern in battlefields today. IHL has to be applicable: we have nothing better.
  • We need to build bridges of interpretation, moving from a history of inter-state warfare to the conflicts we have now, e.g. asymmetric warfare, terrorism.
  • States and non-state groups are equally responsible for IHL violations.
  • There are also concerns about partnered warfare, i.e., when one State or group is engaged in conflict via a partner State or group which conducts the military operations themselves; the GCs influence here too. In Syria, Yemen and Iraq, we need to look at the bigger picture as to who influences the battlefield and what support can be given to an armed party in a conflict, e.g., training, delivery of weapons, logistical and digital support, and, analytical capacity. Where does a state’s responsibility lie when it delegates to partners, and how can the influence of a supporting party be used to good effect?
  • Should the ICRC be more proactive to identify the gaps in the GCs? There is reluctance as there is no consensus on how to develop law today that would be sufficiently precise to meet the challenges. Bilateral and small multilateral conversations are taking place but the time is not right to take a major step like in 1949, after WWII.
  • As regards cyber warfare, cyber security, AI, etc., the time is not right for global legislation but for discussions.
  • Development of new weapons: are they in sync with IHL? Biological weapons and chemical had to be prohibited because they cannot be used in accordance with the fundamental principles of precaution and proportionality. The use of some other weapons may have to be limited for the same reasons.
  • Re. treatment of IS fighters and their families in detention in foreign countries, the ICRC visits detainees in Iraq and Syria, in the camps where families of foreign fighters are held. If those in the camps ask to return to their countries, the ICRC will try to facilitate the transfer of children and women back to their countries of origin. But IHL law and bilateral relations will come into it. Stripping people of their nationality, however, is not a good way forward; decisions which result in statelessness leave people without protection. Have to caution against creating a new generation of statelessness people. The ICRC tries to bring back children/minors who don’t have parents; this is fairly straightforward. More than 100 countries have foreign fighters in detention in Syria and Iraq.
  • Re. partnered warfare, a lot can be done to ensure responsibility is exercised if there’s the political will, e.g., establishing ground rules, review of operations and targeting decisions in combat operations. Examining decision-making chains is also important if partners are to be supported in taking decisions that protect civilians. Arms transfers are another aspect. Under which conditions does the state transfer/export weapons – with IHL conditionality? States have developed product responsibility for consumers, yet arms are exported to highly contested environments where they can do huge damage.
  • The ICRC believes accountability for war crimes is absolutely critical but there is a price to be paid for a neutral humanitarian actor’s access. If the ICRC were part of accountability and justice processes, that access would be drastically reduced: the ICRC currently visits 1 million detainees a year and delivers services to many of the most affected in conflict situations. We must think together and strike separately. The ICRC is the only organisation exempt from having to testify before the International Criminal Court. We need separate strong credible institutions to deal with different functions.
  • As regards mass graves, while the ICRC supports capacity-building for forensic identification, ICRC cannot be an identifier of those in mass graves. The humanitarian line (e.g., caring for families seeking information about the missing) must be kept separate from other responsibilities allowing for adjudication of cases. Silos are needed in this case.
  • The safety of those who deliver humanitarian assistance is a big preoccupation. In terms of numbers killed, staff security remains the same. There are collateral damage cases, when staff are too close to the frontline and accidentally hit, but now there are deliberate attacks in order to make humanitarian workers leave to punish the civilian population. The radicalisation and fragmentation of groups also make it difficult to know who has to be consulted so humanitarian workers can operate safely. There are 35 different armed groups in Yemen in one city; to securitise the humanitarian operation is mind-boggling. In some conflicts now, e.g., Nigeria and Afghanistan, fighters can establish themselves as radicals by killing a humanitarian worker, and get more support. Public advocacy for an independent humanitarian presence is therefore critical. Criminalisation of humanitarian workers by states that consider that some humanitarian work to be criminal, e.g., medical treatment of terrorist combatants, is also a considerable concern.

The PHRG is delighted to have hosted the ICRC President to discuss the on-going importance of respect for IHL, particularly as regards civilian protection, with UK Parliamentarians, and will continue to raise related matters with all relevant interlocutors.