ICRC shrugs off battle on 60th anniversary of Geneva Convention

11th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

To mark the anniversary, the ICRC reiterated a seemingly perpetual appeal to respect the 1949 laws protecting civilians, detainees, the wounded and humanitarian workers in conflicts.

Geneva -- The international Red Cross will mark the 60th anniversary of the modern day Geneva Conventions on Wednesday by turning the corner on US-led attempts to rewrite or cast aside the laws of war.

"It is the bedrock, the cornerstone, the centrepiece that remains valid," insisted Knut Doermann, head of the ICRC's legal division.

To mark the anniversary, the ICRC reiterated a seemingly perpetual appeal to respect the 1949 laws protecting civilians, detainees, the wounded and humanitarian workers in conflicts.

On top of its emergency aid in war zones, the Geneva-based agency is the internationally recognised guardian of the Conventions ratified by 194 countries.

As the agency notes, the rules are not always respected.

"We see violations of international humanitarian law on a regular basis in the field, ranging from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate attacks and ill-treatment of prisoners," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement.

Development charity Oxfam pointed to violence in Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan as examples of the increasingly indiscriminate nature of modern conflicts.

"We feel that this has been one of the worst two years for civilians in conflict," Nicole Widdersheim, head of Oxfam International's New York office told AFP.

Ever more sophisticated and powerfully-armed armed rebel or insurgent groups have added to the challenges.

During the "war on terror", parts of the rule book were also called into question by some of the most powerful governments that are bound by them, including the United States and Britain.

"The relevance of international humanitarian law has been questioned in the face of the increasing complexity of armed conflicts and the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians as well as phenomena such as terrorism," Kellenberger acknowledged.

However, he added: "There is no doubt that existing rules remain relevant and that achieving improved compliance with the law continues to be the main challenge."

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the ICRC became embroiled in a tussle with the then Bush administration over the treatment of detainees from Afghanistan, torture, secret detention and the scope of the conventions.

Doermann said the United States no longer stands by this stance, as he pointed out that US President Barack Obama made an explicit public pledge to abide by the Geneva Conventions shortly before he was sworn in January.

"That being said, it's not excluded that there are issues that need to be looked at. But sometimes it's not the fault of the law," he added.

Olivier Bangerter, an ICRC specialist on "arms carriers" -- regular armies and other armed groups -- said the conventions lent staff credibility when they tried to persuade fighters to protect aid workers, civilians and prisoners.

"If I'm with Africans I can tell them it's not something that's come from Europe or the United States -- all African countries have ratified it so they consider it is in keeping with African tradition," he said.

"That goes a long way: you can do it with ethnicity, geographical entities like Africa or Asia, or religions. And it also works with armed groups."

At the same time, it is clear that there is a need to raise the public awareness of the conventions.

An ICRC opinion poll in eight countries that have experienced conflict found that less than half of the 4,000 people questioned knew that the conventions existed.

But 75 percent agreed with limits on what combatants could do.

The ICRC believes countries that are not involved in conflicts should put more pressure on those that are to ensure civilians are sheltered.

Hopes are also pinned on the International Criminal Court formed in 2002.

However, Doermann said the emergence of the ICC as a supplement to national justice was also a sign of failure, in that countries were not tackling the worst crimes themselves.


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