On August 22, 150 years ago, the first Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field was adopted, enshrining the idea in international law that, even in times of war, a certain degree of humanity must be preserved.
Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which together helped to secure acceptance for international humanitarian law on the world stage at that time, are now calling for stricter compliance with this principle, as there remains a lack of effective mechanisms for encouraging compliance around the globe.
Today’s wars have little in common with the battles of the 19th century. The fighting has moved from clearly defined battlefields to populated areas. Traditional war between armies of opposing states is the exception and non-international conflicts are now the norm. These days civilians bear the brunt of armed conflicts.
International humanitarian law has adapted to this change. Appalled by the destruction and suffering caused by World War II, 196 states agreed in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 on comprehensive protection for those who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities: wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians.
This cornerstone of international humanitarian law was supplemented in 1977 and 2005 by three additional protocols.
The use of certain weapons, such as biological or chemical weapons, cluster munitions and antipersonnel mines, is now widely outlawed.
The law aims to protect the most vulnerable from the brutality of war. Its implementation has seen a certain amount of progress, as in the training of soldiers and the prosecution of some war crimes at the International Criminal Court.
Nevertheless, every day we receive horrific reports and pictures from around the world, bearing witness to unspeakable suffering in armed conflicts.
All too often there are serious breaches of international humanitarian law.
Underlying it all is a collective failure. The contracting states undertook in Article 1, common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, “to respect and to ensure respect” for these conventions “in all circumstances”.
Thus far, however, they have failed to give themselves the resources required to keep their promises. International humanitarian law has, since its conception, lacked mechanisms to encourage effective compliance, leading to death and destruction for those affected by war.
Constant effort is required to keep alive their rights: a right regularly violated without any clear response is likely to lose its validity.
This is why Switzerland and the Red Cross have held talks, since 2012, with all relevant states on the best way to improve compliance with international law. Their work is based on a mandate given by the 31st international conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. They believe states need a forum in which to decide jointly on measures needed for better compliance and need regular, systematic discussions on meeting their obligations.
States could assist each other to develop the skills required to meet their humanitarian obligations. They could also keep each other up to date and exchange views on the most effective measures to tackle this often complex task.
Such a forum would also help to ensure that the law dictates future developments in warfare, such as new weapons technology, and not vice versa. This requires regular dialogue on current issues of international humanitarian law.
States need an appropriate instrument to respond to serious violations of international humanitarian law, to prevent such crimes in the future, and to protect civilian populations from further suffering. A mechanism for investigating the causes of such violations would be useful too.
In accordance with their mandate, Switzerland and the Red Cross will submit specific recommendations on the establishment of such a forum at the 32nd international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in late 2015, when the states involved will decide what action to take.
Since the adoption of the first Geneva Convention 150 years ago, international humanitarian law has become a central pillar of the international legal order.
Ultimately, its provisions serve to protect our humanity. This is an irrevocable right. It is based on the belief, forged over the centuries and in all our cultures, that it is essential to lay down rules if we want to prevent wars from degenerating into barbarism.
It is up to our generation to consolidate these achievements and to create an institutional framework to ensure these rules are respected. If it is to be fully effective, the law needs suitable instruments.
Never in the history of humankind have we been closer to a solution than we are today. It is up to us to seize this opportunity.
Didier Burkhalter is the President of the Swiss Confederation and Peter Maurer is the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross