Why international humanitarian law compliance should be universal
When armed conflict breaks out, it is the civilians who suffer the brunt of the ensuing violence and chaos. This has been an inescapable fact of conflict since time immemorial, and nations have always grappled with ways to settle their differences without inflicting too much suffering on humanity.
Our worst failures in doing so have demonstrated the worst example of man's inhumanity to others, their property, and environment, but it has also given expression to mankind's best hope in addressing the evil effects that war can bring.
Such is the effect on Jean Henri Dunant, who was shocked by the carnage that he saw in the evening of June 24 in the battlefield of Solferino, Italy in 1859, that he became the father of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and a strong voice for the observance of rules among nations even during war (because) even war has limits.
In a few short years, the Hague and Geneva conventions were forged and made binding to protect the vulnerable – the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (Convention I); the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea (Convention II); the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Convention III); and the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Convention IV).
The purpose of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, also universally known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), is to mitigate the scale of suffering of those who are not part of the conflict or can no longer fight (hors de combat). IHL is a set of rules that address humanitarian concerns in situations of armed conflict which embodies the rules of war or law of armed conflict, international or non-international.
International humanitarian law
In celebrating the IHL day, we must be ever mindful of what those laws mean and why they matter in modern society. In the Red Cross movement, it is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that performs the lead role in promoting compliance of IHL by parties of a conflict wherever they are in the world.
But there is much that National Societies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) can contribute to the universal compliance with IHL. The National Societies are at the frontlines of humanitarian crises all over the world as it is mandated to assist authorities in discharging the obligations set forth in the Geneva Conventions and the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Hence, they can engage with their respective governments and even non-state actors who are party to a conflict.
The 189 National Societies, which are members of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, can augment the great work being done by the ICRC to promote the values enshrined in the IHL to become part of the fabric of their respective nation's culture and character. Compliance with IHL is even more urgent now as conflicts flare up in different parts of the globe and claim more of the affected population.
Since the second World War, armed conflict between nations have waned, but a comparative rise in the internal conflicts within countries continue to be a scourge of humanity.
Unfortunately, breaches in the observance of IHL continues to be perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. These violations become fodder for news reports, and they are truly a cause of concern. They must be addressed with every resource at our disposal.
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, assisted by the IFRC, are best positioned to mitigate the impact of armed conflict on civilian populations and to promote the fundamental principles of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to foster trust and confidence vis-vis safe access to the vulnerable.
Being part of the community and the state where they have a presence, National Societies perform an auxiliary function to the authorities in their various localities. And that is where we can make the most difference as we promote engagement and understanding of the situation on the ground so that we can reach all parties to a conflict and encourage them to be compliant with IHL even as war or armed conflict rages.
Humane treatment of one another
Finally, all of us, especially our leaders must exhibit the wisdom to see that as technology advances, and the lethality of our weapons of war exponentially increase, so must our understanding of what it means to be humane even in a time of war.
We are at a point now in our history when we actually have the power in our hands to destroy our world, including ourselves. In a short time, we have developed nuclear weapons, chemical and biological agents, and the means to unleash these deadly weapons that cannot distinguish combatants from civilians, military targets, to non-military targets that tend to affect the largest possible number of people who are not party to the conflict.
With the advent of drone strikes, these weapons can be dropped anywhere in the world at a touch of a button by someone who is far away from where the action takes place. Humanity is no longer fighting in the trenches, face to face, but using modern means of warfare to inflict harm on each other vicariously. Dehumanization in the modern battlefield is as much a cause of concern as the actual wars that continue to be fought in the modern world.
Our capacity for wisdom and humane treatment of one another even in times of war or armed conflict must outpace our capacity to create weapons of mass destruction and our seeming willingness to use them against one another. That is the only way we can pull back humanity from the brink of destruction. – Rappler.com
Gwen Pang, the former Secretary General of the Philippine Red Cross (PRC), now heads the East Asia Country Cluster for the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC). IFRC seeks to promote the advancement of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
By virtue of Executive Order No. 134 (1999), every 12th day of August in the Philippines is designated as International Humanitarian Law Day. IHL Day is held to commemorate the signing of the 1949 Geneva Convention.