Wars without limit and end
Syria. Iraq. South Sudan… The number of conflicts rose over the past decades, as did the numbers of displaced people. Every day, we hear of civilians being killed or injured, too often in violation of international humanitarian law, and with impunity.
In a world where wars continue to cause the prolonged suffering of civilians, can we still say that the laws of war are relevant?
The good news is that international humanitarian law, which protects people who are not or no longer participating in hostilities, still matters especially for people in war-torn countries.
In the recent “People on War” survey, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked 17,000 people from 16 countries about issues relating to war. Results show that two-thirds of the respondents think it still makes sense to impose limits on war.
The results also highlighted that a majority of the respondents believe that torture is wrong, that civilian casualties should be minimized even in modern warfare, and that humanitarian workers should be protected. Eighty-two percent say that attacking hospitals, ambulances and health workers is wrong.
Yet, the survey also shows that many no longer believe that the Geneva Conventions prevent wars from worsening. And we observe a growing disconnect between public opinion and the reality on the ground—a result of increasingly fragmented conflicts.
In my work with the International Committee of the Red Cross, I have seen the suffering caused by attacks on civilians, hospitals and essential infrastructure, and we know from the news that violations of international humanitarian law continue. It is saddening that more people have become resigned to the death of civilians as an inevitable part of warfare. These are worrying trends.
Although the Philippines, where internal armed conflicts are taking place, was not part of the survey, I believe that the essence of international humanitarian law resonates with Filipinos and that the rules of war are seen as relevant by the authorities, security forces, and nonstate armed groups.
I am encouraged that the Philippines has ratified most relevant treaties and conventions on international humanitarian law. It is also one of the first Asian countries that adopted in 2009 a domestic law punishing violations, and in 2013 an act protecting the Red Cross and other emblems.
The Philippines has integrated the teaching of international humanitarian law in the armed forces, the judiciary, and police institutions, and the armed forces and some nonstate armed groups have integrated it into their code of conduct in hostilities, or are engaged in a dialogue with us on its relevance and application.
However, much remains to be done to reduce the impact of these conflicts: The bill on internally displaced persons, which helps protect displaced Filipinos, has yet to be passed into law, while the Cluster Munitions Convention, Arms Trade Treaty, and Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property have not been ratified.
The number of stakeholders in armed conflicts is growing, and is making compliance with international humanitarian law more difficult. The International Committee of the
Red Cross now has to “fight” for respect for international humanitarian law because of the global tendency to shove it aside all too easily.
In this year’s World Humanitarian Summit, we asked states to strengthen their respect for international humanitarian law as it is “the single most important way to improve the lives” of millions affected by war.
Your voice is important, too, in preventing the suffering of more civilians. Spread the message that international humanitarian law saves lives and reduces suffering. Speak out against attacks on civilians, aid workers and essential infrastructure. Demand greater political will from all stakeholders to respect the basic principles of humanity.
Our president, Peter Maurer, couldn’t have captured it more meaningfully: “The rules of war establish limits. Wars without limits are wars without end. And wars without end mean endless suffering. We must never allow ourselves to be numb to human suffering.”
Pascal Porchet heads the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in the Philippines, which works to assist and protect victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence.
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