Red Cross sounds alarm over humanitarian law

The ICRC has complained to the United States about its treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba Keystone

This week’s Red Cross conference has been dominated by concerns that the Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of war, are not properly respected.

This content was published on December 5, 2003 minutes

The conference, which takes place every four years, brings together the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Federation.

The 191 States parties to the Geneva Conventions are represented too.

In his opening address to the conference the president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, warned that the war on terror risked undermining international humanitarian law.

“The struggle against terrorist activities, necessary and legitimate as it is, must not undermine the values on which society must be founded,” said Kellenberger. “In particular the preservation of human dignity according to international law."

His speech reflects mounting concern within the Red Cross movement that today’s wars are waged in ways which make it difficult to ensure that the Geneva Conventions are properly upheld.


The ICRC has already protested to the United States over its handling of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Many human rights lawyers consider the US to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions because it refuses to class the detainees as prisoners of war, calling them instead “enemy combatants”.

And the increasing attacks by suicide bombers shows a complete disregard for the provision that, in conflict, civilians should be protected.

An added concern is the growing danger facing aid workers themselves - in Iraq both United Nations and Red Cross workers were the victims of suicide bombers.

Humanitarian organisations fear they are seen as easy targets, and are being attacked to score points against the US, and to destabilise the region.


There is even a suspicion that some of the shadowy groups carrying out the attacks in Iraq may actually associate the traditionally neutral ICRC with the occupying force.

“There are groups that obviously associate us with the broader western presence,” said Pierre Krähenbuhl, director of operations with the ICRC.

“That’s a perception we need to counter, and the way to do that is to emphasise that we have managed to operate in very many Muslim countries. Today, in fact, half of our field expenditure goes in Muslim countries.”

It’s a very different picture from 1864, when the first Geneva Convention on the treatment of wounded armies was drafted, or even from 1949, when the Conventions were expanded and adopted by states, in the aftermath of the Second World War.


The Swiss government, together with the ICRC, hosted a workshop at the conference to examine the issue of international humanitarian law and modern conflict.

Francois Bugnion, a lawyer with the ICRC, said he did not think new conventions were the answer.

“It’s clear that the world is quite different from 1949,” he said. “But we do not consider that the suicide bomber as such warrants any revision of the Geneva Conventions.

“What counts is the effect,” he continued. “If the effect is an aggression against civilians, it is very clear that is a violation of existing humanitarian law.”

However, many human rights activists are concerned that US actions, in Guantanamo Bay in particular, are helping to erode respect for humanitarian law. As the world’s only superpower, many believe the US needs to lead by example.


“It’s obvious that the behaviour of the US will be much more closely observed by other states,” said Bugnion.

“To be the superpower also entails a bigger responsibility, because any example set by the US is more likely to be followed, good or bad, by other countries. So this is a factor we cannot ignore.”

Nevertheless, what Bugnion believes is really necessary to uphold the Geneva Conventions is not new laws, or new clauses, but simply for the spirit of the conventions to be honoured.

“We believe that if the provisions of humanitarian law are interpreted in good faith, they provide the framework in which to regulate all these things, including suicide bombers.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes in Geneva

In brief

The 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent took place in Geneva from December 2-6.

The central theme of this year’s meeting was the protection of human dignity.

The ICRC is a neutral, Swiss-run agency, founded in 1863 by the Swiss, Henri Dunant.

The ICRC works mainly to protect the victims of conflict by providing humanitarian assistance, conducting prisoner of war visits and monitoring compliance of the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC is the custodian of the Geneva Conventions, which outline the rules of law in times of war and occupation, including the protection of civilians.

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