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Compliance with International Humanitarian Law in armed conflicts is not optional
by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
4:06pm 7th Dec, 2023
Feb. 2024
(Speech given by Mirjana Spoljaric, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, at the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva).
As flagrant violations of international humanitarian law regularly occur, Mirjana Spoljaric underlines the relevance of the Geneva Conventions - setting clear limits to violence in war – and urgently calls upon States to make international humanitarian law their political priority, to respect principled humanitarian action and personnel and to preserve peace.
"People living in armed conflicts are suffering beyond what words can describe. They barely survive in the rubbles of their cities and in overcrowded camps. They die in hospitals under attack.
Women agonize giving birth because basic essential medicine and services are missing. Children grow up hungry and with constant fear. Persons with disabilities cannot flee because of inaccessible warnings, shelters, and evacuations.
Families struggle with the pain of not knowing the fate of their loved ones – missing, detained or held hostage.
The immense destruction and despair should not let us forget: Wars have rules. International human rights law and international humanitarian law share a common objective – to protect the lives and dignity of all human beings.
75 years ago, states voluntarily agreed to be bound by these laws. Their rules remain relevant and utterly clear. 75 years ago, states rallied around a humanitarian imperative to control the behavior of warring parties and a shared interest to set limits to violence in war.
Today, the Geneva Conventions are ratified by all States. They form the strongest international consensus.
However, challenges to the relevance and effectiveness of international humanitarian law are evident:
Violations regularly occur under the watch of the international community. Exceptions to its application are created. Reciprocity and transactional arguments are invoked to justify disrespect for the rules of war and basic values of humanity.
The continuous suffering in armed conflicts does not point to the ineffectiveness of international humanitarian law but to the non-compliance by warring parties and states that support them.
Besides the letter of the law, I must recall the fundamental values on which international humanitarian law was founded. First and foremost, humanity.
The Geneva Conventions were created to preserve a minimum of humanity in even the most difficult situations, to prevent the dehumanization of the other, and to help maintain a pathway back to peace.
Second and equally importantly, equality. Equality, as the fundamental notion of humanity, is everywhere we look in modern international law. Humanity and equality are enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the Geneva Conventions. All speak to the dignity, worth and equal rights of all individuals.
Irrelevant of the side of the frontline they find themselves in, the lives and dignity of every civilian is of equal worth.
Both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Human Rights Council work towards ensuring states uphold these fundamental values.
As President of the ICRC, I will seize every opportunity to urge you:
First – to make compliance with international humanitarian law your political priority. It is your collective responsibility to prevent and reduce the cost of war by implementing international humanitarian law and ensuring its respect around the world.
Protecting our shared humanity means not only upholding the letter of the Geneva Conventions but also its spirit.
Second – to protect and preserve neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action and personnel. Respect our neutrality and enable our independence, as they are our best tools to access those in need and to influence the behaviors of those who hold power and weapons.
However, international humanitarian law alone will never ensure the safety and dignity of people. Principled humanitarian action alone will never be enough to alleviate all the suffering. They will not change what war intrinsically is: an assault on our common humanity.
Therefore, my third urgent call to you is to do your utmost to preserve peace, avoid the escalation of violence and ensure that conflict does not become the norm".
(Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delivered by Laetitia Courtois, Permanent Observer and Head of Delegation to the UN, to the United Nations General Assembly, 78th session, meeting on the coordination of humanitarian and disaster relief assistance of the United Nations).
We meet this year at a time of significant humanitarian challenges, and armed conflict is at the heart of these challenges. Thousands of our colleagues are mobilized in contexts around the world to reach out to those in need and uphold the principle of humanity.
The provision of humanitarian relief by impartial humanitarian organizations is essential to reduce the suffering in armed conflict. This year, we wish to highlight three important issues that continue to affect our operations.
First, compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in armed conflicts is not optional.
We have heard many States echoing this as a political priority: it is now imperative to make it an operational reality.
IHL seeks to limit the humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts. Better respect for IHL means making sure that civilians are never directly targeted, that loss of civilian life and damage to civilian infrastructure are minimized. It means also that violence to life and person, the taking of hostages, and outrages upon personal dignity are prohibited.
Those obligations may not be conditioned on the behavior of one of the parties; IHL must be respected in all circumstances, even if it is violated by the adversary.
Better respect for IHL also leads to better humanitarian outcomes, limits suffering on all sides and preserves a pathway beyond the conflict.
When rhetoric dehumanizing the civilian population associated with the opposing side is amplified, we see significant humanitarian impacts and long-term risks.
Disinformation and misinformation campaigns against humanitarian actors put those trying to help and those who need this help, at direct risk.
In light of the dangerous consequences of dehumanizing language in armed conflict, we urge political and military actors not to resort to or endorse such practices.
Member states have a critical role in the preservation of the humanitarian space, and we ask your support to ensure it is upheld, even in the most polarized crises.
Secondly, ensure better humanitarian access, in particular in urban areas.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been carrying out neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian action since 1863 – for 160 years.
In 1992, the General Assembly adopted a resolution outlining similar ways of working for the United Nations and its implementing partners.
These modalities are key to gain the confidence of the parties to an armed conflict. Assistance must be provided, and solely on the basis of need.
Access and space for impartial humanitarian organizations and their personnel, including experts able to repair essential services and infrastructure may not be unlawfully denied by warring parties.
Today, we are losing precious time in negotiations around the modalities of humanitarian responses, yet it is particularly as crises become more acute that needs are most desperate and thus timely access most critical.
Respecting IHL means ensuring that humanitarian assistance is provided to the civilian population. The parties to a conflict have the primary responsibility to meet the basic needs of the population in areas under their control.
But where they are unable to do so, impartial humanitarian organizations must be able to do their work, including throughout the hostilities, and not just when those have ceased. Without this immediate access, humanitarian consequences will be far greater and more difficult to address.
Under IHL, civilians and civilian objects must be protected against direct attack, including in urban settings. When an attack against a military objective is expected to cause civilian losses greater than the anticipated military advantage, it must be suspended or cancelled. And the parties to an armed conflict must do everything they can to minimize civilian harm.
It is critical that the Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, the EWIPA Declaration, signed by 83 States, is implemented, in order to see a change in warring behavior.
And we would ask Member States who have not signed it to consider doing so. It is also more essential than ever that states with influence do what they can to ensure better respect by their partners and allies, fulfilling their obligations to both respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions.
Thirdly, understand the limits of humanitarian action.
Humanitarian action is vital, but it cannot be the only answer. We encourage political actors to engage towards political pathways that will ensure life with dignity and development for their peoples. Without that, humanitarian responses quickly reach their limit. Three years ago, we highlighted the fact that we had been in our 10 largest operations an average of 36 years.
We therefore also encourage political and development actors to prevent development reversals, especially when a crisis hits, and find a way to stay engaged in fragile settings.
Ensuring that populations affected by conflict can meet their needs and rebuild their lives in the long run cannot be done solely by humanitarians. Essential public services and systems of entire countries need to be maintained no matter the circumstances.
As conflicts continue to be increasingly protracted and affect a variety of countries, the resources and capacities of the entire aid ecosystem must be harnessed into wider systemic responses to increasingly complex needs in crises.
This is a humanitarian imperative for affected populations which requires action by a variety of actors – and above all a political commitment from states.
Now is the time to redouble diplomatic efforts to put our shared humanitarian values at the center of international cooperation.
Multilateralism matters. International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles matter. It is through renewed collective action that we will preserve our common humanity and make a difference in the lives of millions of people affected by armed conflicts and other humanitarian emergencies.

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