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Home News What can a 19th century battle teach us about war and humanitarianism?

What can a 19th century battle teach us about war and humanitarianism?

Published on January 25, 2022
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Some humanitarians believe that the Geneva Conventions are not keeping up with developments in warfare.

Way back in 2009 I visited Solferino in Italy. The site of a huge battle, in June 1859, between Napoleon III and King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy on one side, and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria on the other. Around 300,000 soldiers massed in traditional formations relatively unchanged since the Middle Ages, it was the last time that ruling monarchs led their men into battle.

It lasted 14 hours. At its end almost 40,000 men were either dead, wounded, or missing. Many of those who had been wounded were left on the battlefield, receiving no treatment. This was the scene that greeted Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, who had travelled to the region hoping for a meeting with Napoleon III to discuss trade with French colonies. Instead, he came upon the suffering of thousands of young men, dying alone, far from home.

Dunant, so horrified by what he witnessed, moved first to get treatment for the wounded, and then to set up, with Geneva colleagues, an organisation dedicated to alleviating the suffering of war – that organisation, of course, was the International Committee of the Red Cross. I was in Solferino in 2009 to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle which inspired the foundation of the world’s leading humanitarian agency.

Laws of war

Henri Dunant did not stop at creating the ICRC, however, he also believed war should have some rules, and, just five years after Solferino, the first Geneva Convention, aimed at alleviating the suffering of wounded soldiers, was signed by 12 countries, Switzerland among them.

Fast forward to 2022, and the Geneva Conventions have grown from one to four, they include rules on the protection of prisoners of war, and of civilians. But moving faster than the conventions, some humanitarians believe, are developments in warfare.

In this week’s Inside Geneva podcast we talk to Hugo Slim, formerly of the ICRC, now at the University of Oxford, and author of a new book ‘Solferino 21’, which asks what lessons from that battle 163 years ago are still relevant in the 21st century, and what may have to be adapted, or changed.

As Hugo Slim tells us on Inside Geneva, while people fought on land and sea for thousands of years, and then took to the air in the 20th century, today, all sorts of new battlefields are emerging. “Outer space, cyber space, and information space. Warfare is dramatically spreading across three new surfaces.”

Cyber threats

A key area the modern ICRC is already looking at is lethal autonomous weapons, or killer robots. What does it mean for warfare, and for the laws of war, if machines are taking the decision on who to target, and when to shoot? As our podcast panellist Paola Gaeta of Geneva’s Graduate Institute points out, artificial intelligence and algorithms are already being used by many of the world’s militaries.

Paola supports the ICRC in its attempts to agree some controls over killer robots before they become widely used (see our previous Inside Geneva on this topic ).

But there are other threats too, weapons which don’t kill, but devastate our modern society by destroying or compromising our communications systems. Just last week the ICRC itself was a victim of a cyberattack in which the confidential data of over half a million people was stolen. The US secretary of state Antony Blinken has warned repeatedly that, while the US fears Russian tanks could roll into Ukraine, other forms of aggression, such as a cyberattacks, are also very likely.

We’ll be taking a deep dive into cyber warfare in an upcoming episode of Inside Geneva, but in this episode the current sabre rattling between the US and Russia is another sign, Hugo Slim believes, that the small but brutal wars we have become used to in the late 20th and early 21st centuries may be coming to an end. The policies of the big powers, he fears, suggest they are preparing for something different :“We are now faced with the risk of big war, between great powers, between China, Russia, Europe, the US, India.”

That’s not a very reassuring prospect, particularly when, just a couple of months ago, those big powers got together in Glasgow in a show of unity over how to tackle the world’s existential challenge of climate change. Global warming is the other key factor identified by Slim, and indeed many aid agencies, as a key trigger for conflict in the coming decades.

Do humanitarians need to change?

Faced with all these challenges and changes, what should aid agencies be doing? Is their current model still fit for purpose? As our analyst Daniel Warner points out, Henri Dunant’s motivation to set up the ICRC was a deeply held religious faith, and compassion. “The whole concept of humanitarianism, which was very religious at the time, has got to change, because the world has evolved since then.”

Hugo Slim counters that humanitarian work has changed a great deal since Dunant’s time, with the big agencies becoming, regrettably he feels, like “international cartels” who suck up all the funding and plan their strategies at their Geneva headquarters with little consultation with the communities they seek to help. Slim argues that 21st century humanitarianism must become local, with bottom-up communities of aid workers working in, and serving, the towns and villages they live in.

Climate change in particular, with its inbuilt tensions over vital natural resources like water, will, he believes, demand such an approach.

And international law expert Paola Gaeta brings an interesting point to the debate. One hundred and sixty-three years after the battle of Solferino, she believes compassion is no longer the appropriate motivation for humanitarian aid. “Instead of bringing help because of compassion I think we should recognise that the victims of war have rights.”

Seriously? No more compassion? Surely our whole body of international humanitarian laws and human rights conventions was born of compassion? Where would we be without it? Paola has the answer. Compassion, she points out, can be judgemental : “If you don’t feel compassion, perhaps you won’t help”.

And there it is, the true legacy of Henri Dunant. He didn’t just inspire his fellow Genevans to travel to Solferino to provide succour to wounded soldiers, he created the first Geneva Convention, and it led to a whole raft of other laws and conventions around war, and what human beings must not inflict on one another.

Today it is widely accepted that when we fight, there must be some rules. Wounded soldiers, civilians, prisoners of war have fundamental rights, whether we like them or not, whatever they may have done, whatever their sympathies are.

Of course, ideally we would just give up on war, but, unfortunately, although the methods, reasons, and arenas for war may change, humanity’s weakness for fighting out its differences doesn’t seem to.