Asst. Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ms. Ursula Mueller Remarks on “Geneva Conventions Serving Humanitarian Causes” at Conference on 70 Years of the Geneva Conventions: Challenges to Humanitarian Law

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This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. It is with great pleasure that I am here today representing the United Nations to join you in marking this important milestone.

This event gives us an important opportunity to recall the remarkable scope and impact of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. It also gives us a chance to reflect on the challenges we face in ensuring compliance to international humanitarian law, and to identify good practices that we can all advocate for.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 firmly established that those who are not or no longer taking a direct part in hostilities must be protected, and their life and dignity upheld, without adverse distinction.

This includes the wounded, the sick and shipwrecked combatants, prisoners of war and civilians. The Conventions also take into account particular vulnerabilities and specific needs, including of women and children.

Importantly, a unique provision in each of the Conventions – common article 3 – addresses the protection of people in non-international armed conflict and applies to non-State armed groups as well as States.

Today all States are party to all four Conventions. This is a remarkable accomplishment.

But practices in today’s conflict zones continue to take an immense human toll. The UN Secretary-General wrote in his report on the protection of civilians earlier this year, “In some cases, respect for the law in the conduct of hostilities is questionable at best… the allegations and evidence of breaches of obligations under international law continue to mount.”

Last year tens of thousands of civilians were killed, injured or maimed as a result of direct or indiscriminate attacks by parties to conflict. In towns and cities, belligerents use explosive weapons designed for open battlefields, resulting in mass civilian casualties, enormous destruction of infrastructure, and long-term disruption of essential services. When explosive weapons were used in populated areas last year, 90 per cent of those killed or injured were civilians.

Civilian death and injury are often accompanied by widespread attacks damaging houses, schools, hospitals, markets, camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, places of worship and other essential infrastructure on which civilians depend for their survival.

Conflict-related sexual violence continues to persist in all too many armed conflicts, often as part of a broader military strategy.

Children are recruited into armed groups; forced into early marriage; used as suicide bombers; and barred from education as their schools are attacked or taken over.

Wars have forced nearly 70 million people to flee their homes. Last year alone, nearly 1.5 million people were newly displaced across international borders, while a further 5.2 million were internally displaced.

Conflict and violations of international humanitarian law continue to drive hunger. Ongoing conflict prevents farmers from reaping their harvests, destroys vital infrastructure, and disrupts commercial trade. As a result, over recent years hunger levels have increased, after decades of decline. According to the 2018 Global Report on Food Crises, 60 per cent of food insecure people are living in conflict-affected countries.

Aid and health workers who set out to help people in need are themselves targeted. So far this year the World Health Organization has verified 893 attacks against health care workers and facilities. In some places, medical workers face criminal prosecution simply for doing their job of treating sick or wounded fighters.

Cumulatively these trends have caused humanitarian needs to spiral and exposed vulnerable groups to many different types of risks. Three times as many people are in acute humanitarian need as a decade ago, most of them in armed conflict.

And while humanitarians endeavour to respond and place protection at the core of humanitarian action, combatants deliberately hinder humanitarian operations, slowing them down, driving up costs and blocking aid from reaching people in need. Widespread access constraints continue to jeopardize humanitarian assistance to people in need.

Compounding active hostilities and logistical challenges, bureaucratic impediments and attacks against humanitarian personnel remain the most severe constraints.

Violence against humanitarian workers, including killing and maiming, kidnapping and abductions, likewise hinders humanitarian operations. Some 369 aid workers were kidnapped, wounded or killed last year.

Seventy years after the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, it is not rules of war that we lack. Since their adoption, we have established a comprehensive legal framework --international humanitarian law -- that is designed to minimize or prevent human suffering in war. The four Geneva Conventions are complemented in important ways by their Additional Protocols. Many countries have also signed up to treaties prohibiting or restricting the use of certain weapons and enshrining international criminal law.

This international humanitarian law requires all parties to armed conflict to:

Treat all persons in their power humanely, prohibiting acts such as torture and rape.

Take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects, including essential infrastructure, throughout military operations - this includes sparing humanitarian and medical workers, facilities and assets.

Allow and facilitate impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need and ensure that humanitarian personnel have the freedom of movement to carry out their work.

Provide the wounded and sick, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention they require.

As mentioned earlier, the problem is that some fighting parties and their backers do not always follow the law. That said, we do know many good practices that warring parties have put in place to respect the rules of war. These include through domestic legislation and policy, unilateral commitments, or humane practices and feasible precautions on the battlefield. The International Committee of the Red Cross has a helpful and growing database to document such good practices. These practices are what States and armed groups need to develop, share, advocate, and implement.

To illustrate, our gracious host, the Kingdom of Morocco, has established the National Commission on International Humanitarian Law that organizes training sessions, participates in the drafting of legislation, and cooperates and shares experiences with other national committees. The Kingdom of Morocco also incorporates international humanitarian law into its training for armed forces and its disciplinary codes.

Additional actions to improve compliance must include urging all Member States to join and implement international humanitarian law treaties, beyond the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Deeds of commitment, by which armed groups unilaterally declare that they will respect key rules of international humanitarian law, are also a compelling tool. These steps must be complemented by training on the law for armed forces and armed groups. The recent work of the ICRC has shown that, when trained, fighting parties can be more willing to conform their behaviour.

Adopting strong policies and practical measures is also crucial. For instance, these can include establishing measures to track, minimize and address civilian harm, developing guidance on the choice of weapons and how they are used in populated areas, and ensuring that arms are not exported if there is a substantial risk that they will be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.

All parties should adopt clear and simple procedures to facilitate humanitarian access. States must support, and not hinder, humanitarian organizations’ engagement with armed groups for humanitarian purposes. They can take steps to prevent unintended negative consequences of sanctions and counterterrorism measures on impartial humanitarian action by incorporating safeguards in Security Council resolutions, donor agreements and domestic legislation.

Investigating and prosecuting allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law is also critical. Too often, credible allegations of serious violations are not pursued. For example, States should adopt legislation encompassing the full range of international crimes and jurisdiction over them. States should invest in strengthening national capacity to carry out impartial, independent investigations and prosecute suspects. Where national accountability systems do not act, there should be more support for international or hybrid accountability mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court. Supporting – financially or otherwise – the systematic collection, analysis and documentation of serious violations of international humanitarian law is also important.

We have a robust legal framework governing parties’ behavior in war and we have a growing body of good practice to put it into motion. Together we now need to redouble our efforts to promote the law and improve this behavior. All States must use their influence and leverage to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. I am confident that if we prioritize these practical steps, we can make strides in improving respect for international humanitarian law and minimizing human suffering in war.

Thank you. Merci beaucoup. Shukran Jazeellan.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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