12 August 2019
As the Geneva Conventions turn 70, they still constitute the cornerstone of the international humanitarian law (IHL) we contribute to disseminate, interpret and implement. Based in the heart of international Geneva, at the Villa Moynier – named after Gustave Moynier, one of the co-founders of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – we teach the Geneva Conventions to students and practitioners from all around the world. The Geneva Conventions are also at the center of our research into IHL, and of countless meetings we convene among diplomats, academics, civil society and military and civilian practitioners to discuss current challenges in protecting those affected by armed conflicts.
It has been possible to adopt the Geneva Conventions back in 1949 – when the cold war started, with Stalin’s Soviet Union and the then colonial powers at the negotiating table – to provide meaningful protection for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians in particular in occupied territories. States wanted to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Second World War. Furthermore, for the first time, fundamental guarantees for all those not or no longer participating in hostilities in non-international armed conflicts, addressed to governments and rebels alike, were adopted. All this should embarrass and make those who represent States today pause, as they are unable to find consensus on even the most harmless developments of IHL and its implementing mechanisms. Indeed, the challenge today is not to update the Geneva Conventions on their few outdated aspects (such as the amount of advance of pay for prisoners of war or the prohibition for hospital ships to use a ‘secret code’), but to generate better respect for the Conventions.
Recently, states could not find consensus on a very harmless implementation mechanism initiated by Switzerland and the ICRC. Everyone agreed, however, that the Geneva Conventions are still relevant, but that their respect is insufficient. Consensus has just been lacking on the mechanism to enhance respect that was suggested. In my view, this stalemate must be overcome or the underlying hypocrisy at least unmasked. It is inconceivable to accept IHL but not to accept any mechanism at all. Should every State be allowed – but also undertake to choose its own mechanism? The result of such mechanisms could then be compared and their impact evaluated. Thus discussions would be decontextualized and relatively depoliticized, and states would be deprived of the alibi claim that they would prefer another, better mechanism. Another avenue would perhaps be to compare best practices in national implementation measures, including on how and based on what interpretations states and armed groups train weapons bearers.
Notwithstanding these setbacks, we will continue to disseminate the basic message of the Geneva Conventions that the enemy, even those we fight against for a just cause, even the ‘terrorists’, deserve basic guarantees of respect in an armed conflict. (and the details of the Geneva Conventions) in our master’s programmes by training young people who are or will eventually become the decision-makers and leaders of tomorrow.
We will also continue to clarify the meaning of these key IHL instruments in contemporary circumstances in policy studies and expert meetings.
On this important day, we are also particularly proud to have contributed to a highlight published today by the ICRC with case studies we elaborated to illustrate different aspects of the Geneva Conventions and their pivotal role or the protection of people affected by armed conflicts.
Last but not least, tomorrow, our Strategic Adviser on IHL, Dr Annyssa Bellal, has been invited, together with the President of the ICRC Peter Maurer and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares, to brief the UN Security Council on the Geneva Conventions. May this be the starting point for a new sense of ownership of the Geneva Conventions by States, armed groups and public opinion. They are part of our common heritage of humanity!
Two students enrolled in our LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights – Marishet Mohammed Hamza from Ethiopia and Virginia Raffaeli from Italy – developed for the ICRC online casebook How does Law Protect in War? 26 practical cases that show how IHL applies in contemporary armed conflicts.
Our Rule of Law in Armed Conflict (RULAC) online portal monitors the three armed conflicts that are currently taking place in Ukraine. Each conflict has been updated to include recent developments, which do not affect our current classification.
This panel discussion marks the Launch of our New Research Initiative, carried out jointly by our Swiss IHL Chair Robin Geiß and the ICRC.
This IHL Talk aims at shining light on the various ways of promoting respect for and implementation of international humanitarian law.
This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, examines the conduct of hostilities in situations of international armed conflict, also known as the Law of The Hague.
This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, provides an overview of the evolution of the rules governing the use of force in international law, focusing on military intervention on humanitarian grounds and the creation of the United Nations collective security system. It then addresses the concept of the responsibility to protect.
This project intends to clarify the conditions of accountability for international crimes by providing a detailed assessment of the customary international law status of, in particular, the actus reus and mens rea elements of modes of liability: planning, instigating, conspiracy, direct and indirect perpetration, co-perpetration, the three forms of joint criminal enterprise, the doctrine of common purpose under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, command responsibility and aiding and abetting.
This research aims at building a common understanding and vision as to how states and the relevant parts of the UN system can provide a concrete and practical framework to address human rights responsibilities of armed non-state actors.