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Modern conflict: Address by ICRC’s vice-president to SWIRMO 2016

Events and highlights / Law and Conflict 1 min read

Address by Mme Christine Beerli, vice-president of the ICRC, at the opening of the Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations (SWIRMO), 26 September – 1 October 2016.


General Blattman, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here in Lucerne today, alongside our colleagues from the Swiss Armed Forces, to open this tenth Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations. From the outset, let me express our thanks to our co-hosts, who have generously offered us their support and excellent facilities to stage this event. The link between the Swiss Armed Forces and the ICRC traces its roots back to the very founding of our organization when one of the original members of the Committee was the Swiss Army General, Henri Dufour, and we are very pleased that the link has remained strong to this day.

It is fitting that we have brought SWIRMO, the ICRC’s biggest annual military event back to Switzerland to mark its tenth anniversary. Two years ago marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the First Geneva Convention, in 1864. This convention, along with its sister conventions, has become the basis for what we recognize as the Law of Armed Conflict. It was therefore a significant milestone in the development of international humanitarian law (IHL), designed specifically to protect those who do not, or who no longer, take part in hostilities. The ICRC was instrumental in supporting the development of that Convention and it continues to work to develop and promote the law today. Just one example was the publication this year of an updated Commentary to the First Geneva Convention, the first part of a major project to update all of these commentaries.

At the same time, the ICRC works in over 80 countries, fulfilling the other elements of its mandate, including the protection and assistance of the victims of armed conflict. One of the ICRC’s distinguishing characteristics is that it combines direct humanitarian action on behalf of victims of war and armed violence with a legal role in developing and reaffirming the laws applicable in situations of armed conflict. The ICRC comes to the aid of people in need and, at the same time uses its legal status to remind all parties to armed conflicts of their responsibilities to spare the victims and avoid unnecessary suffering. Both of these activities have their roots in the Law of Armed Conflict, which at its core is designed to prevent suffering.


Challenges of modern conflict

When the First Geneva Convention was drafted, warfare mainly involved clashes between clearly uniformed and defined armed forces. Modern warfare still occasionally features such inter-state confrontations, but as you all know, the trend in today’s armed conflicts is towards greater complexity; with more actors, more weapons, more diverse strategies and more transnational and transregional networks, which together leads to a greater number of possibilities, including for violations of the law.

In other situations we see military forces being deployed to assist the authorities with crises that fall short of conflict, but in which violence is a major factor and human suffering may be just as extensive as it is during conflict. Many armed forces are increasingly tasked to conduct ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns, undertaking so-called ‘humanitarian missions’ as an element of combat missions. In general, we observe a growing tendency towards the politicization of aid, and the increasing blurring of political, military and humanitarian objectives in a number of conflict areas by States. These trends can put at risk the very understanding of humanitarian action, which is so important to ensure that the ICRC and our Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement partners can have safe access to the victims. The consequences of this shift in the nature of conflict have been profound for the ICRC.

Whilst many facets of war may be evolving, the need for humanitarian actors such as the ICRC to have access to affected populations, whether in conflict zones or other situations of violence, has not changed. It remains vital. The reason is clear; the effect of war on civilians, protected persons, and those no longer taking part in hostilities has not diminished. Populations affected or displaced by fighting still lack the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. Detainees still risk ill-treatment. The sick still face challenges accessing healthcare, and in many places those that provide healthcare are themselves too often in danger.

For the ICRC, safe access is therefore a pre-requisite. It is essential to our work. Our access relies on several factors. Probably the most important is that all sides know and understand that the ICRC is a neutral, independent and impartial actor, not taking sides, and treating everyone as equals; for example in places where we deliver assistance, that is on the basis of need alone. We therefore take a very transparent approach to our work. Whenever possible we talk with governments – and with non-State armed groups – on the basis of our legal statutes and the role entrusted to us by States Parties to the Geneva Conventions, to be able to conduct our humanitarian mission. This engagement with all parties to a conflict is not without risks but remains an essential part of the ICRC approach. The increased complexity of conflict that I spoke about before makes this work more, not less, difficult and also more necessary.

The aim is to ensure that our humanitarian action is understood by all those who are engaged in fighting and that they understand their obligations under the law. This will be the key for us to gain access and to obtain assurances regarding the security and safety of our staff. Of course the protective emblems of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal provide protection under the law. But we need to explain this to all actors, be they State or non-State armed groups, and we need explicit agreement from them to abide by these rules. In conflicts today, we see an alarming number of incidents in which these basic protective emblems are not respected – both by State and non-State actors. In particular people trying to provide medical services are being blocked or even deliberately targeted, with desperate consequences for the victims of the fighting. We tackle this and other challenges of the conduct of hostilities through our dialogue, and through fora such as the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent that was held in Geneva at the end of last year.

We adopt very strict rules on the neutral and impartial nature of our work precisely to enable this dialogue. It is essential that everyone is clear that we do not take sides in conflicts or situations of violence. Instead, we adopt an independent approach to identifying, and where possible addressing, the needs of those affected – including working with all sides to avoid violations of the law. But we have to be realistic. Engaging all the parties to a conflict may sound simple, but it is not; in fact, the ICRC is currently in dialogue with around 200 governments and armed groups in relation to conflicts in over 50 countries.


The application of the law in modern conflicts

The changes we have seen in the nature of conflict have raised questions about whether the current legal framework and model of humanitarian action remains valid. Some commentators suggest that IHL has been eroded and become powerless. The ICRC would strongly disagree. Never has the Law of Armed Conflict been so strong and comprehensive, and never before has the community of States been able to agree on so many globally accepted rules. And it is precisely because the law has never been stronger, that we are more sensitive to violations and transgressions, and rightly so.

Research conducted by the ICRC has shown universal acceptance of the fundamental idea that certain categories of people should be protected from harm: the wounded, the sick, detainees and civilians. So at its heart the core ideas enshrined in the law of armed conflict remain valid. The law also includes very clear guidance about the role of humanitarian actors, in particular the ICRC, and the protection due to those who wear the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem. The challenge is to ensure that these rules are known, understood, applied and, where necessary, backed up by disciplinary measures. Despite all the changes in conflict tactics and weaponry, the basis of the law remains valid and applicable.

States have an obligation to ensure respect for the law, in particular in their own armed forces and that same law also applies to non-State Armed Groups, irrespective of their acceptance or awareness of it. Since awareness of the law is an important step towards its implementation, we encourage armed groups to provide an appropriate level of instruction in the international rules and to implement codes of conduct for their members. We have worked with a number of armed groups to help them in this task, commenting on Codes of Conduct or providing initial training so that they can begin to train their own personnel. This mirrors our engagement with State armed forces, where we work to encourage the promotion and integration of the law of armed conflict into their military practice, in line with their international obligations.


The role and value of SWIRMO

This is where SWIRMO comes in. By bringing together senior officers, with experience from around the world, we are able to discuss current challenges, put them into the context of humanitarian law and practice, and together learn how best to address these issues in military operations.

It would be easy for the ICRC to run an event of this nature focused on the traditional interstate paradigm and discuss rules with which you are already very familiar. But to do so would not fulfill our responsibilities. Instead, in this workshop, we will take on some of the challenges which I have addressed. You will look across the full range of military actions, from warfare to the provision of security, and support to law enforcement. You will do so under the tutelage of experienced syndicate leaders, all of whom are either serving or recently retired senior military officers. They all have extensive experience in both teaching the law and, most importantly, incorporating its most relevant aspects into operational practice. In this respect, they will be your most important asset this week and they will guide you through the programme. But this is also a unique opportunity for you to meet and talk with other officers about their operational experience; in some cases this will be with officers from very different military traditions and countries to your own. If you like, it is a forum to share best practices for encouraging and ensuring respect for the applicable law, during military combat or non-combat operations.

Since 2007, this annual workshop has been the ICRC’s flagship event for military audiences, among the many supported by the ICRC worldwide. From the beginning, its success has been attributed to you, the participants. We have asked your governments to provide us with experienced candidates who have a strong connection with military operations, because you are the ones tasked with implementing humanitarian norms on the ground. We are grateful that your governments have responded, and that you will be able to contribute to the success of this workshop with your wide range of operational experience.


Desired outcomes of the workshop

Looking ahead, we hope you will personally gain a great deal from this workshop, but at the outset we must ask ourselves, what do we see as an outcome? While the ICRC stresses that it cannot compromise on compliance with the law, this does not prevent us from recognizing that abiding by the law’s provisions may sometimes be difficult. That is why the emphasis of this course is very practical, to show you how these issues can be fully integrated into military practice, even given the challenges of modern warfare.

We encourage you to take your new knowledge and then take a hard look at your organizations. All armed forces need to translate their legal obligations into measures that are practical, comprehensible and realistic for combatants at all levels, from the lowest soldier to senior planning staff. We refer to this process of transposing legal rules into concrete mechanisms or instructions, as ‘integration’. If you realize during this week, or when you return home, that there is work to do in your own organization to improve the integration of the law, or areas where ICRC expertise could further assist with your own programmes, then please make that recommendation to your leadership and encourage them to contact the ICRC.

The ICRC would like to see you as advocates who are not only familiar with the ICRC, but who understand the importance of the ideas we will cover this week. We see your role as forming the critical link between the theory of these internationally recognized rules and their practical application in the field. We want you to return to your organizations and share your experiences. We would like you to explain that compliance with the law and support of humanitarian action is not contrary to good military practice, but is in fact the mark of a professional military and makes sense.

Thank you for your attention, and once again may I thank the Swiss Armed Forces for their generous support. I wish you all a productive week, and I hope that, upon returning to your countries, you will share the experiences you have had in this workshop.


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