Reflections on the occasion of 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

by Erika Vögeli

The year now drawing to a close marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the most important documents of international humanitarian law or international law of war, as it is also known, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Considering the numerous armed conflicts in our world, no one wanted to take this as an occasion for great celebration, but to reflect, however, on the importance of these conventions and the duty contained for all of us as human beings and as fellow human beings. Although being violated time an again until today, these conventions, together with the other agreements of international humanitarian law and the closely related activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies represent milestones in human history. In a world full of violence and armed conflicts, people again and again have been looking for ways and means to preserve a space for humanity even in times of war and to set limits to violence, to the state of lawlessness and to human suffering.

Universal values of ethical behaviour

Currently, 196 states have signed these conventions, whereby, as the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, noted, they “are among the very few international treaties that have been universally ratified, not least because they reflect – more than just law – universal values of ethical behaviour”.1 International humanitarian law demands that the defenceless should not simply be left to their fate; it demands limitation of the powerful, it demands end of violence, where with respect to the defenceless the right of self-defence is no longer justified, it demands humane treatment of all those who do not or no longer participate in hostilities. It is the law of the weak in face of unleashed organised violence. International humanitarian law has been violated time and again, and often in the grossest way. Far more often, however, it has been respected, albeit in a less spectacular way, and it has saved the lives of millions of people, prevented much unnecessary suffering and at least somewhat alleviated the always dramatic consequences of armed conflicts.

The International Humanitarian Law

ev. The International Humanitarian Law (IHL) seeks to limit the effects of armed conflicts on people and objects. It initially applied on armed conflicts between two or more states. Supplemented by the Additional Protocols II of 1977 it also applies on non-international conflicts.
All persons who are not participating in hostilities (civilians) and all those who have ceased to take part, such as wounded, prisoners of war, internees, ship-wrecked as well as medical and religious military personnel are entitled to protection.
They must not be attacked and have to be treated humanely and without any adverse distinction in all circumstances. The wounded and sick must be rescued and cared for, prisoners of war and people in detention must be treated humanely. Murder, torture, hostage-taking, impairment of personal dignity and convictions without the verdict of a court of law are prohibited.

Switzerland as Depositary State

As the Depositary State, Switzerland is responsible for the storage of the original documents of the Treaty as well as the declaractions of ratification and accession and other declarations of the contracting parties. They also must notify the other parties of such declarations and ensure that all legal acts  connected with the Treaty are carried out in accordance with the regulations.
In the fulfilment of all these assignments the Depositary is under obligation to neutrality.

International humanitarian law and Red Cross alleviate

The development of international humanitarian law is closely linked to the Red Cross: already the first Geneva Convention of 1864 was the result of the work of Henry Dunant and the other members of the International Committee for Relief for the Wounded Soldiers, as it was called at that time. It aimed at protecting the volunteers who cared for the victims of war and violence in relief societies by legally binding the states. With the first convention, red cross on white ground was declared an inviolable sign of protection, respect for which is guaranteed by the unconditional observance of the seven Red Cross principles (see box), especially its neutrality and impartiality. When the horrors of the Second World War urged to extend the humanitarian conventions and and after all their extension to include the protection of civilians, it was again the International Committee that initiated the drafting of the four conventions, which finally were adopted by the representatives of the states in 1949. The fact that the diplomatic conference convened by the Swiss Federal Council in Geneva on 21 April 1949 to discuss the draft treaties was successfully concluded as early as 12 August, i.e. less than four months later, bears witness to the readiness and willingness to contribute to the legal protection of the civilian population in particular, but also of prisoners of war and internees, the wounded and injured and shipwrecked by means of binding obligations in comprehensive legislation.

Rejection of war by human conscience

However, the agreements also explicitly oblige states to promote and disseminate the knowledge and the awareness of the importance of international humanitarian law and its conventions not just among their armed forces but also among the entire population. 70 years of the Geneva Conventions should therefore be above all an occasion to reflect more deeply on the conditions of human living together. International humanitarian law and the fact that its universal recognition across all cultures, religions and societies means the rejection by human conscience of war, this most fatal aberration in human history. Wars are not a natural necessity, they are not rooted in human nature. Wars are made. It always requires enormous propaganda, countless lies and gross deception to convince people halfway through (or at least to silence them) of the alleged inevitability of an act of aggression, mostly declared “as necessary defence”. Recent history provides enough examples.

What are we living for?

Thinking about our living together always means thinking about what man actually is, what actually would correspond  to his being, to his nature. The individual human being is a weak being – what singles us out is all that what makes us, as social beings, a human being in the first place. From the development of the individual to the creation of our cultural achievements, nothing would be possible without the social bond from person to person, without communication, mutual help and cooperation. War, on the other hand, is destruction, destruction of life, families, human hopes, future perspectives, human communities and cultural assets; it leaves behind physical and emotional wounds, broken communities, the germ for resentment and further spirals of violence.

And although all that is done by people – for the sake of power, profit and other base motives – the vast majority of people abhor it. They wish to live their lives in peace with their families, friends and relatives and to have a livelihood that gives their children a future. Building up, improving life and its conditions, facilitating it for the next generations, contributing to the common good, enriching living together and thereby becoming a human being oneself – this is perhaps the deepest meaning of human life.


The seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross

Humanity: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.

Impartiality: It makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. It endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.

Neutrality: In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.
Independence: The Movement is independent. The National Societies, while auxiliaries in the humanitarian services of their governments and subject to the laws of their respective countries, must always maintain their autonomy so that they may be able at all times to act in accordance with the principles of the Movement.

Voluntary service: It is a voluntary relief movement not prompted in any manner by desire for gain.

Unity: There can be only one Red Cross or one Red Crescent Society in anyone country. It must be open to all. It must carry on its humanitarian work throughout its territory.

Universality: The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in which all Societies have equal status and share equal responsibilities and duties in helping each other, is worldwide.


Further development of international humanitarian law

To protect this space of human community, of humanisation and human development, to regulate human coexistence in the sense of peacekeeping and cooperation, we have developed the law. And to this end nature has “endowed us with reason and conscience”, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states. Reason gives us insight into the inner and outer interrelationships of our existence, of our living together. Above all it tells us that war is no longer an option today. But our conscience also reminds us of the obligation to our fellow human beings, who like me are human beings, born equal in dignity and rights. And as long as there are still armed conflicts, as long there is also a need for further development and work in the service of international humanitarian law, which does not want to let the voice of peace and humanity become silent in the midst of war. In view of a constantly changing world with new actors, new weapons technologies, new forms of warfare such as cyber warfare, in view of the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of humanitarian aid, the privatisation of warfare and many other changes, the development of international humanitarian law is a great challenge.

Keeping the spirit of Solferino alive

Law, of course, must be constantly adapted to further developments in all areas of life. An effective implementation, its maintenance and even more the broader anchoring, however, require a basis, an equivalent in human feeling and thinking. The same is true for international humanitarian law. It was the “spirit of Solferino” with which Henry Dunant deeply addressed the human feelings of numerous people of his time, from which the Red Cross, the first Geneva Convention and finally the worldwide movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies emerged. What this spirit appeals to is the very basis of our coexistence: the co-human bond without which no human being can become a human being. This bond is also the foundation of reason, which tells us that peaceful coexistence in the long run cannot be based on violence, but only on respect for the dignity and rights of the other as well. And no right can be enforced in the long run that is not approved in principle by a majority of the people affected, that is not perceived as right and just and thus as reasonable. The compassionate human feeling that the “memory of Solferino” appeals to and from which a deep inner condemnation of war emerges, is the origin and spirit that brought about the development of international humanitarian law. Keeping this spirit alive, initiating it in each new generation, is a task that is incumbent on each of us. Although the formation of a moral conscience is at the core of human coexistence, it does not come about by itself, but is underlayed and developed anew in each generation through upbringing and education. The spreading of value relativism which considers all moral and ethical principles as obsolete, has blurred the vision that morality, ethical behaviour and human conscience belong to the core of human existence. Human coexistence without morality, the “anything goes” is not a human condition, but the dictatorship of law of the fist – whether in the form of war, real violence or manipulation and “smart power”.

Not just legal but also just and right

Each one of us who takes 70 years of the Geneva Conventions as an occasion to reflect on these interrrelations and to awaken and deepen the spirit of international humanitarian law everywhere in our environment, above all in education and training of future generations, is making a contribution in his place to spreading the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, as Peter Maurer called for in his speech this March:
“Let us remember that the spirit of the Conventions – to uphold human dignity even in the midst of war – is as important now as it was then. Let us always remember that the Conventions are law – but somehow go transcend law – as what they require is not only legal, but just and right. Let all of us do what we can to ensure that this spirit prevails.”3

1    Changing World, Unchanged Protection? 70 Years of Geneva Conventions. Speech by ICRC President Peter Maurer on 13 March at the opening of the celebrations of 70 years of Geneva Conventions at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
2    Dunant, Henry. A Memory of Solferino. The French original was published in Geneva in 1862.
3    Changing World, Unchanged Protection? 70 Years of Geneva Conventions. Speech by ICRC President Peter Maurer on 13 March at the opening of the celebrations of 70 years of Geneva Conventions at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

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