According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and all persons not taking part in combat may under no circumstances be the object of attack and must be spared and protected. In fact, however, this principle has been undermined, because the civilian population, particularly since the Second World War, has suffered most of the consequences of armed violence.
In contemporary conflicts, the losses sustained by civilians are generally higher than those seen among weapon bearers. To make matters worse, control over the population is often one of the major issues at stake in confrontations. The development of this situation can be attributed to the rise of religious and ethnic hatreds, the collapse of State structures, the battle for control of natural resources, the vast availability of weapons, the proliferation of acts of terrorism, and the spread of so-called asymmetric conflicts.
The lack of protection of the population in armed conflicts and other situations of violence today is not due to the inadequacy of the legal framework laid down by international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). The main cause, unfortunately, resides in the lack of respect shown by weapon bearers and their political operatives for these fundamental rules.
The ICRC’s protection efforts are intended to benefit two categories of persons in particular:
– those who have been arrested and detained, particularly in the framework of an armed conflict or another situation of violence;
– civilians who are not or who are no longer participating in hostilities and violent confrontations. Special attention is paid to groups exposed to specific risks, such as children (recruitment of minors), women (sexual violence), and elderly, handicapped, and displaced persons.
For the ICRC, protection in a broad sense is aimed at ensuring that authorities and other constituted groups comply with their obligations under IHL and IHRL. The right to life, respect for family unity, and respect for dignity and physical and psychological integrity are central to these obligations. The ICRC also seeks to ensure that civilians are not subject to discrimination and that they have access to health care, safe drinking water, and agricultural land.
Likewise, reminding the parties concerned of the rules governing the conduct of hostilities (such as distinguishing between the civilian population and military objectives, the principles of precaution and proportionality, and ensuring access to basic necessities for the population’s survival), as well as the rules relating to the use of force in law enforcement operations, is an integral part of the ICRC’s protection work. The ICRC is also involved at the highest diplomatic level when it is a matter, e.g., of advocating for the prohibition of certain weapons whose use is deemed contrary to the basic rules of IHL, such as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions.
Most of the time, ICRC delegates, having documented abuses which they learned about in the field, inform the authorities of the existence of protection problems and ask them to take action to end these abuses and/or provide assistance to the victims. The solutions provided by the ICRC are not limited to making confidential representations to the authorities. They may take multiple forms, from promoting rules of engagement and operation consistent with international standards for the armed forces and police, to evacuating persons trapped in combat zones, as well as facilitating agreements between the parties to a conflict that will contribute to safeguarding the fundamental rights of the population.