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Universal Meeting of National IHL Committees: At the heart of efforts towards better respect for the law

Events and highlights / Generating Respect for IHL / Law and Conflict 7 mins read

Universal Meeting of National IHL Committees: At the heart of efforts towards better respect for the law

Over 280 representatives of 133 countries convened at the Universal Meeting of National IHL Committees, on 30 Nov.-2 Dec. 2016 in Geneva.

Facing the formidable task of implementing international humanitarian law (IHL) in their national legislation, States have found it useful to create national committees and similar bodies on IHL. These committees recognized the added value of sharing experiences and challenges in peer-to-peer meetings. It was the overall objective of the Universal Meeting of National Committees and Similar Bodies on IHL to provide such a platform.

Held from 30 November to 2 December 2016 in Geneva, the Universal Meeting of National Committees and Similar Bodies IHL built on the work of previous similar events held in October 2010, March 2007, and March 2002.

The meeting was organized by the ICRC through its Advisory Service on IHL, with the support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the involvement of the Swiss Interdepartmental Committee for IHL and the Swiss Red Cross.

It gathered over 280 participants representing 133 countries and 16 international organizations, as well as representatives of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and individual experts.

A technical meeting to enhance protection in armed conflict

With a view to strengthening the implementation of and respect for IHL, the meeting was devoted to “Enhancing protection in armed conflict through domestic law and policy.” It was composed of three distinct sessions designed as platforms for peer-to-peer exchange and dialogues on the role, work and experiences of national IHL committees.

Discussions revolved around how the committees contribute to the preservation and protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, the protection of health-care services in armed conflict and other emergencies and the protection and assistance of internally displaced people and migrants in connection with armed conflict.

Participants addressed issues relating to the establishment and functioning of national IHL committees and similar bodies. They engaged in dialogue on the mandate and working methods of these bodies, their achievements, and the associated challenges associated. They were also able to learn about the forms of support available to them, including that of their peers, and to identify others that would be of use to them, such as capacity building and networking.

Second session plenary on the role of national IHL committees, 30 November 2016. (ICRC/S. Rubio)

Second session plenary on the role of national IHL committees, 1 December 2016. (ICRC/S. Rubio)


In addition, the ICRC shared perspectives and updates on specific issues relating to ensuring respect for IHL, strengthening IHL protection for persons deprived of their liberty and weapons-related legal issues. The session also included a presentation on new tools that have been made available to States’ authorities and other interested parties on the promotion and implementation of IHL.

“Both the ICRC and States have to work on the implementation to IHL to make sure that it is unconditionally implemented everywhere and complied with. One of the main goals is probably to create such mechanisms that would avoid the occurrence of armed conflict in the first place.”
Oleg Slizhevsky, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Belarus, Head of the National IHL Comission


The Universal Meeting also featured side events on the Contribution of National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies to National Committees and Similar Bodies on IHL (organized jointly by the ICRC and selected National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies); Legal Reviews of New Weapons, Means or Methods of Warfare (Organized by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the ICRC); Regulating Private Military and Security Companies and the role of National IHL Committees (Organized by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) with the ICRC’s cooperation). Finally, it hosted a panel discussion on War in Cities: Addressing the Humanitarian Challenges that launched the new conference cycle organised by ICRC.

A need for increased collaboration at the international and regional levels

At the opening of the meeting, H.E. Valentin Zellweger, Permanent representative of Switzerland to the United Nations and the other international organisations in Geneva, captured the primordial importance of the national implementation of IHL. “Let there be no mistake, it is not the lack of rules but a lack of observance thereof that is causing the casualties, the destruction of civilian and cultural property or large-scale forced displacement in armed conflict and that we need to tackle together. It is true: IHL must first and foremost be implemented at the national level.”

While problems posed by IHL implementation may be universal, so too can their solutions. Indeed, many national IHL committees have reached out to their peers for guidance, perspectives and support. Since the last universal meeting in 2010, there is a noticeable progressive trend in bilateral exchanges and joint activities between national IHL committees. For example, national IHL committees from States in the Indian Ocean created a platform to hold annual meetings, one of which was convened in the margins of the Universal Meeting; and two national IHL committees from European countries launched a bilateral cooperation on the side-lines of the meeting.

“The networking of the countries of the Sahel, the strengthening of their capacities, the identification of good practices – and certainly many challenges – could be carried out at a sub-regional level.”
Soualem Lazhar, Representative of the National Commission on IHL, Algeria


Delivering remarks as independent observer during the closing session, Professor Nicolas Michel recalled the central importance of the law in any society. He recognized the crucial role played by national IHL committees in the implementation of international law, and stressed the importance of collaboration between national IHL committees in the promotion of and respect for IHL.

In her concluding observations, Farida El Khamlichi, Chair of the National Commission on IHL of Morocco, underscored that no single national committee model can fit all contexts. Nevertheless a strong legal status for such bodies is essential for the effective execution of their duties.

The meeting stimulated and supported the interest of States, which have not yet established a national IHL committees or are not yet active in a certain domain, to consider doing so.

“The Committee does not have a specific role on the protection of cultural property. […] I see a way to enable the committee to obtain another mandate which would make it competent on the specific question of the protection of cultural property. There needs to be an entity responsible for this, and right now there is none in Burkina Faso.”
Zakaria Dabone, Permanent Secretary of the Interministerial Committee of Human Rights and IHL, Burkina Faso


Participants called on the ICRC to continue providing platforms and opportunities to promote dialogue and exchanges between national IHL committees, not only via the coordination of regular universal level meetings, but also by facilitating the exchange of information and experiences via an online platform.

In her opening remarks, the ICRC’s vice president, Christine Beerli, also stressed the need to nourish synergies and complementarities between the different efforts promoting respect for IHL:

“States are most effective at respecting and ensuring respect for IHL when they act in cooperation with others or collectively. We therefore need to combine efforts on various fronts to secure better protection for men, women and children from the adverse consequences of armed conflict. Regional and universal initiatives only have teeth when they are implemented at the domestic level; and domestic input helps to shape what is discussed and done beyond a country’s borders.”


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