A century and a half ago today, nations took the unprecedented step of agreeing to limit the bloody effects of wars.
THE battle of Solferino took place in Italy in 1859. Historical accounts indicate it lasted 15 hours and left a bloody and gruesome mess in its wake.
A travelling businessman from Geneva named Henry Dunant witnessed the aftermath: tens of thousands dead and wounded left behind.
He documented what he saw: “When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth, it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches of Solferino were literally thick with dead.”
Dunant published and disseminated an account of this experience upon his return home in a manifest entitled A Memory Of Solferi.
In it, he raised the idea of forming a relief organisation that was neutral in nature to provide care for wounded soldiers on either side of any battle.
This struck a chord with the president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, Gustave Moynier, who later invited Dunant to a special meeting. Soon after that meeting, an organisation that was later to become known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was born.
Obviously, though, a relief agency that could operate safely within a war zone would require universal recognition.
On Aug 22, 1864, 12 nations came together to sign a treaty that became the first of the Geneva Conventions. In signing it, each state submitted itself to an obligation: to spare wounded soldiers and the people and equipment involved in their care.
The red cross, an inverse of the Swiss flag, was chosen as a protective marking so that relief workers could be readily identified as non-combatants.
Not long after, the symbol of a red crescent was popularised by the Ottoman Empire and formally recognised in a 1929 amendment to the conventions.
The treaty signed in 1864 was the first of four; the second extended the obligations of each signatory to include those wounded in armed conflict at sea. The third and fourth related to the treatment of prisoners of war, and the protection of civilians in times of war.
Over the years, the initial text of the conventions have been recast and revised, with three protocols added in relation to the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts, and regarding the emblems of the society (which, as of 2005, includes a red crystal).
The Geneva Conventions were the first treaties in modern history to achieve universal acceptance by all states. They marked the start of a universal codification of contemporary humanitarian laws.
Today, we celebrate 150 years of international humanitarian law with a Q&A, courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Kuala Lumpur to raise awareness and serve as a reminder about what these laws are, what they mean and why they are important.
What is the international humanitarian law?
International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Law of War, is a set of rules that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict. The rules protect people who do not take part in the fighting (eg: civilians, medical personnel, relief workers) and those who can no longer fight (eg: wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war) – this means that they cannot be directly targeted and killed.
IHL also restricts the tools of war and the ways in which they are used; it prohibits all means and methods of warfare that:
> Fail to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not;
> Cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering;
> Cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.
Under IHL, the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions is banned.
What are the origins of international humanitarian law?
IHL is rooted in the rules of ancient civilisations and religions – warfare has always been subject to certain principles and customs. Universal codification of contemporary humanitarian law began in 1864, with the First Geneva Convention that protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war. Since then, most countries have agreed to a series of practical rules, based on the bitter experience of modern warfare.
When does international humanitarian law apply?
IHL applies only to armed conflict; it does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. The law applies only once a conflict has begun, and then it applies equally to all sides regardless of who started the fighting.
Different rules of IHL apply during international and non-international armed conflict. International armed conflicts are those fought directly between at least two countries. They are subject to a wide range of rules, including those set out in the four Geneva Conventions and other protocols.
Non-international armed conflicts are those restricted to the territory of a single country, involving either regular armed forces fighting groups of armed dissidents, or armed groups fighting each other. A more limited range of rules apply to such internal conflicts.
What is the difference between International Humanitarian Law and human rights law?
While some of their rules are similar, IHL and human rights laws have developed separately and are contained in different treaties. Both strive to protect the lives, health and dignity of individuals but from different angles.
IHL applies in situations of armed conflict whereas most human rights laws protect the individual at all times, in war and peace alike. However, some of the human rights provisions may be suspended during an armed conflict. No suspension of IHL is permitted because it was conceived for emergency situations, namely armed conflict.
IHL aims to protect people who do not or are no longer taking part in hostilities. The IHL rules impose duties on all parties in a conflict.
Human rights laws, being tailored primarily for peace time, apply to everyone. Their principal goal is to protect individuals from arbitrary behaviour of their own governments. Human rights laws do not deal with the conduct of hostilities.
Is international humanitarian law actually complied with?
Sadly, there are countless examples of violations of IHL. Increasingly, the victims of war are civilians.
However, there are important cases where IHL has made a difference in protecting civilians, prisoners, the sick and the wounded, and in restricting the use of barbaric weapons. If there were no rules at all, we would see a greater number of deaths and injuries, and much more destruction in war than we currently see.
Given that this law applies during times of extreme violence, implementing it will always be a matter of great difficulty. That said, striving for effective compliance remains as urgent as ever.
How is international humanitarian law actually implemented?
Measures must be taken to ensure respect for IHL. Countries have an obligation to teach IHL to their armed forces and the general public. They must prevent violations or punish them if these nevertheless occur. In particular, they must enact laws to punish the most serious violations that are regarded as war crimes.
Countries must also pass laws protecting the red cross and red crescent emblems.
Measures have also been taken at an international level; for instance, tribunals have been created to punish acts committed in conflicts (in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, for instance).
An international criminal court with the responsibility of repressing war crimes was created by the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and started functioning in 2004 in The Hague, the Netherlands.
For more information on IHL and national Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations, go to the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross at icrc.org.