Do the Geneva Conventions still stand up?

Published on Peoples Weekliy World PWW, by IRIN, June 23, 2009.

DAKAR, 23 June 2009 (IRIN) – One hundred fifty years ago the battle of Solferino left 40,000 soldiers and civilians either wounded or killed. With too few doctors on hand, Swiss civilian Henry Dunant helped villagers care for the victims. Underscoring the direct and dire impact of war on civilians, his experience led him to found the International Red Cross Movement, which celebrates its anniversary on 24 June.

The Red Cross Movement initiated a convention to establish the laws of war, which was eventually passed in 1949 as the Geneva Conventions, which set out to protect combatants, prisoners and non-combatants in conflict. Additional protocols in 1977 stipulated protection of civilians in international and internal conflict.

Ambiguity has grown over what constitutes a war and what is a criminal attack, over who is a party to conflict and who is a civilian. IRIN asked humanitarian and legal experts how conflict has changed in the 21st century and whether the Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols still hold when it comes to protecting civilians in conflict.

How has conflict changed in the 21st century? …

… But we do need more clarity on the question of civilian ambiguity and what constitutes direct participation in conflict. This could require an additional protocol, or a new guidance note.

The truth is, when the Geneva Conventions do not work it is not because people are trying to find a loophole in the law, but because they are rejecting values of distinction and proportionality.

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.

Any criticisms [of] humanitarian law that derive from the war against terror are unfair. Asymmetrical conflicts – international and internal, guerrilla warfare and terrorism – have been a part of…conflict for centuries. These international conventions have already taken into account and arbitrated the various dilemmas experienced during decolonization wars and the civil wars that occurred after independence in many developing countries. As such, they tackle all forms of insurgency and counter-insurgency military operations. (full text).

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