INTERVIEW-Don't let screech of bombs shatter laws of war - Red Cross lawyer

by Tom Esslemont | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 May 2016 05:00 GMT

Scale of brutality is why humanitarian summit must breathe fresh life into decades-old provisions, ICRC says

By Tom Esslemont

LONDON, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bloodthirsty warlords, barrel bombs and sexual violence are such a regular feature of today's conflicts that you might think the laws of war have been pounded into irrelevance.

But the scale of brutality is the very reason to breathe fresh life into the decades-old provisions at the first World Humanitarian Summit this month, says a top Red Cross official.

"We hear a lot of doom and gloom - that this is the worst it has ever been," said Helen Durham, head of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"The reality is that the media does not always capture what didn't happen; the moments when the laws were followed," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Geneva.

The basic principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) stem from four Geneva Conventions, the first drawn up in the 19th century. Additional protocols have been ratified by nearly 200 countries and aim to protect civilians, aid workers, wounded fighters and prisoners of war.

However, alleged breaches in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan have called into question the ability even of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council such as Britain, the United States and Russia to adhere to the principles, rights groups say.

"It is very obvious from our experiences in the field that the lack of compliance with the very basic points of IHL causes great suffering," said Durham, an Australian who has previously worked for the ICRC in Papua New Guinea, Myanmar and Indonesia.

"The law is there. It is just a question of respecting it."

Convincing armies and rebel groups to respect the laws of war will be one of the key themes at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on May 23-24, which brings together governments, aid agencies and campaign groups.


In December the ICRC failed to get states to unanimously adopt a proposal to create an IHL "compliance mechanism" which it hoped would reduce the death toll in conflicts and ease humanitarian access.

Fearing the new mechanism may have teeth, a number of countries refused to sign up to it at the last annual gathering of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

"While such a mechanism would not have solved all problems, it would have been a step in the right direction," Durham said.

The ICRC's call for a rethink on how the laws of war are enforced and respected follows a slew of allegations of war crimes and violations of the legal provisions in recent years.

For example, U.N. investigators in Yemen have said air strikes led by Saudi Arabia, which is armed in part by Britain and the United States, are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen.

In Syria, activists have accused the government of killing civilians through the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

Last year a confidential report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons indicated that mustard gas was used in a Syrian town where Islamic State insurgents were battling another group.

In Afghanistan, a deadly U.S. air strike destroyed a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres. A U.S. military report said the air strike did not amount to a war crime but was caused by human error, equipment failure and other factors.


The ICRC said new judicial frameworks and courts had boosted investigations of IHL violations in conflict zones, with nearly 70 reported breaches between 2010 and 2014 leading to successful prosecutions from Colombia to Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Durham said perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict continue to enjoy impunity, despite rape being internationally designated as a war crime.

All states share an obligation to prevent further atrocities, she said.

"We have fought for these things since the incarnation of the Red Cross movement 150 years ago - so we must continue to raise them forcefully," Durham said.

"There is no excuse today for anyone in London, Istanbul or Geneva to be unaware of what is happening."

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(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Megan Rowling and Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit

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