As the old year bids farewell and the new year takes shape, we tend to look both back as well as forward, the latter often crowned by one or more new year’s resolutions. A shared resolution we should all strive to keep is to bring international humanitarian law (IHL) home and back to basics through national implementation.

As 2019 was drawing to a close, the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent took place in Geneva, bringing together States and components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on an equal footing in this unique setting to discuss humanitarian challenges and find to lessen the suffering of those caught in armed conflict and disasters. These conferences have historically served as a key forum for discussing, debating and shaping IHL. As such, they have been and continue to be concerned with relevant and pressing humanitarian issues, both at a particular point in time as well as forward leaning in anticipation of things to come.

Staying ahead of the curve

IHL has been regularly updated and revised often in reaction to a conflict occurring at the time. This could be one reason why critics accuse IHL as lagging ‘one war behind reality’, though this delay is likely true in all legal spheres. Having said that, debates on emerging challenges of IHL – as indicated above –have always been part of Red Cross and Red Crescent Conferences generally and of ICRC’s work more specifically.

New technologies of warfare are one example of such a challenge. Technological advances have profoundly changed how humans interact with machines. Some have been fundamental in improving and facilitating how aid agencies can provide assistance and protection to people affected by armed conflicts. Where we once had to limit ourselves to a paper copy of a red cross message that could take weeks if not months to be delivered, today we can use digital means to re-establish contact between family members quickly, often in real time.

New technologies are also of interest to militaries as well as civilians. While some of these technologies can assist militaries in avoiding physical destruction through the use of better information, such technologies also pose potential risks to civilians. Autonomous weapons systems or artificial intelligence are increasingly used in contemporary armed conflicts, yet fundamental ethical, legal and operational questions have not been resolved. Should machines be given the power to make life and death decisions? Can legal and moral responsibility be delegated to sensors and software? What are the potential humanitarian consequences of cyber operations, and how can they be avoided or at least mitigated?

Tackling current challenges head on

Conferences may seem far removed from the reality on the ground. One might wonder how debates happening in Geneva may be relevant for parents who are looking for their child who has gone missing amidst the chaos of fighting. Can such conferences stop the violence? Realistically, the answer to that question is no, they do not. They also do not take place in a bubble, with political disagreements sometimes seeping in and rendering efforts to reach consensus painfully challenging at times. Nevertheless, persistence in maintaining a focus on humanitarian issues has helped International Red Cross and Red Crescent Conferences to cement some of the fundamental tenets that guide humanitarian action. As a result, some of them have helped in lessening the effects of armed conflict on civilians.

For example, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was an early supporter of a ban of anti-personnel mines and has since regularly and persistently raised the issue at its conferences and elsewhere.  The campaign to ban anti-personnel mines was one of the major humanitarian initiatives of the last three decades. Substantial progress has been made since the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention came into force, though challenges remain on the road to achieving the goal of a world where mines no longer cause the horrendous suffering they do even decades after wars have ended. From the above we can conclude two things: a) fewer people are killed or maimed today by landmines than 20 years ago and b) there are still too many people killed or maimed, and thus until we reach a world free of landmines the job remains unfinished.

Participants at the 32nd International Conference in 2015 adopted a resolution on sexual and gender-based violence, noting with alarm the prevalence of such violence and the need to scale up both their response as well as efforts to prevent it. This has helped in mobilizing resources, scaling up assistance to survivors and local organizations by increasing mental health and psychosocial support services as well as economic support.  As with landmines, the work is far from over.

Another example of a current topic that was discussed at the 33rd Conference was urban warfare, which poses particular challenges to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in terms of providing an adequate response. As the world urbanizes, so too does conflict, and civilians bear the brunt of it. Urban areas pose particular challenges to parties to a conflict as military and civilian people and objects often intermingle. Against this blurred backdrop, the risk of endangering civilians and civilian infrastructure is particularly acute. Services indispensable for the survival of civilians may be destroyed or interrupted, leaving people without food, water, sanitation, electricity or health care. These humanitarian consequences require urgent action.

IHL resolution: back to basics

While pressing issues may be debated in the safety of a Geneva conference room, their outcomes must remain relevant and actionable on the ground. Many participants at the conference have seen or experienced the devastating effects of armed conflict themselves, elevating debates far above the theoretical or abstract. Situating such experience within broader policy and legal dimensions allows participants to look at issues from different perspective and discuss concrete steps to enhance respect for IHL.

As such, the IHL resolution that was passed at the 33rd Conference suggests specific steps anchored in national implementation. It is a call to go back to basics. It provides a blue print on how States can ensure that different entities – such as armed forces, civil servants, parliamentarians, judges or National IHL Committees where they exist – duly play their role in strengthening national implementation. IHL should not be relegated to the text books or considered as a mere lofty ambition. IHL is there to help balance military necessity with humanity and it does so in a pragmatic way. But in order to play this role, it requires respect and implementation. That starts at the national level, by bringing IHL home.

The question of the ‘so what’?

While tremendous enthusiasm is funneled into the 33rd International Conference, and rightfully so, it is the steps that are taken afterwards that matter most.

My hope is that the IHL resolution does not fall victim to the same fate as new year’s resolutions often do, made in good faith and then abandoned when the going gets tough. Working to enhance the respect for IHL has always been an uphill battle, but one worth fighting. While it would be easy to despair in the face of today’s conflicts, it would also mean ignoring that IHL is regularly doing what it was intended for – helping to ease the suffering of those caught in armed conflict. These happier endings of when the law ‘works’ simply do not make the headlines. Too much optimism makes us too comfortable, too much pessimism wears us down. Let us therefore find the right dose of both, take this resolution and make it work.

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