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Conflicts to Get More 'Pernicious': ICRC Chief

GENEVA - Conflicts will get ever more "pernicious," the ICRC's chief said Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, as he made a fresh plea for armed groups and states to protect civilians and detainees.

"On the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, I make a heartfelt plea to states and non-state armed groups who are also bound by their provisions to show the requisite political will to turn legal provisions into a meaningful reality," said Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Swiss Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aspeaks concerning the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, during a press conference at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. (AP Photo/Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi) "I urge them to show good faith in protecting the victims of armed conflicts - conflicts that in view of the challenges I have mentioned today are likely to become ever-more pernicious in the years to come," he added.

The Geneva-based ICRC is the internationally-recognised guardian of the 1949 laws protecting civilians, detainees, the wounded and humanitarian workers in conflicts. The conventions have been ratified by 194 countries.

But the ICRC says there have been violations on a "regular basis" in the field, ranging from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate attacks and ill-treatment of prisoners.

After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, the ICRC also became embroiled in a tussle with the then US George W. Bush administration over the treatment of detainees from Afghanistan, torture, secret detention and the scope of the conventions.

Amid challenges ranging from rising internal conflicts to the blurring of lines between combatants and civilians, Kellenberger said more clarity was needed on certain aspects of the conventions in order to ensure better compliance and enforcement.

A guidance document was published two months ago by the ICRC detailing who constitutes a civilian, and work is ongoing to elaborate on issues such as those related to displacement and detainees, he said.

"Based on a comprehensive assessment of the conclusions of this research, which is still underway, a case will be made for the clarification or further development of specific aspects of the law," added Kellenberger.

In displacement issues, questions needing clarification include the right to voluntary return, the need to preserve family unity and the prohibition of forced return, he said.

"Precise rules" surrounding the treatment and conditions of detention, such as the detainees' right of contact with the external world, are also lacking, Kellenberger said.

In addition, a legal definition of non-international conflict also needs to be developed, he said, in order to close loopholes that could be exploited.

"The existence of an armed conflict may be refuted so as to evade the application of IHL (international humanitarian law) altogether," he said.

"Conversely, other situations may inaccurately or prematurely be described as an armed conflict, precisely to trigger the applicability of IHL and its more permissive standards regarding the use of force, for example," he added.

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