posted on Mon 12 Aug 2019 6:33 PM
Briefing on International Humanitarian Law

Tomorrow (13 August), the Security Council will hold a briefing on “the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions – upholding humanity in modern conflict”, presided over by Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. Briefers are expected to be ICRC President Peter Maurer; the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, UN Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares; and Dr. Annyssa Bellal, senior research fellow and strategic adviser on international humanitarian law at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. At press time, a presidential statement on the importance of upholding international humanitarian law and its implementation was still being negotiated.

Briefing on international humanitarian law

The briefing was initiated by Poland, Council president for August, to mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions, which regulate the conduct of armed conflict and are considered the cornerstone of international humanitarian law. Adopted on 12 August 1949 and universally ratified, the Conventions established protections for vulnerable groups in armed conflict—the wounded and sick on land and at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians, including civilians living under occupation. The Conventions have been followed up with three additional protocols which are not universally ratified: Protocol I relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (1977); Protocol II relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (1977); and the third Protocol, the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (2005), established a new emblem, the red crystal.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the inclusion of protection of civilians as an item on the Council’s agenda and the adoption of resolution 1265 of 17 September 1999, the Council’s first resolution on the protection of civilians, which expressed the Council’s deep concern at the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law during armed conflict.

The Council has since reiterated many times the importance of adherence to international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, and their relevance to the maintenance of international peace and security. The concept note circulated by Poland ahead of the briefing recalls recent related Council meetings, such as the open debate on upholding international law of 17 May 2018 (S/PV.8262), the briefing on safeguarding humanitarian space of 1 April 2019 (S/PV.8499), and the annual debate on protection of civilians of 23 May 2019 (S/PV.8534).

Nevertheless, the latest Secretary-General’s report of May (S/2019/373) shows the continued devastating impact of armed conflict and its conduct on civilians around the world. The report notes that parties are failing in their efforts to spare the civilian population and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations, as required by international humanitarian law—or are choosing not to protect them. (For more details see our monthly forecast).

The concept note states that despite the existing comprehensive legal framework, there is poor implementation of international humanitarian law, and violations result in immense suffering of civilians, including vulnerable groups such as women, children and persons with disabilities In addition, many conflicts today are protracted non-international armed conflicts involving non-state actors, including terrorist groups, and together with the emergence of new warfare technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber warfare, or the impact of climate change on conflict , pose practical and legal challenges that hinder compliance. At the same time, the concept note stresses that the binding rules enshrined in the Geneva Conventions remain as relevant as ever for the protection of civilians.

The concept note invites Council members to reflect on practical measures that can be taken to uphold international humanitarian law. It suggests that members focus on the following: the need to respect international law, particularly international humanitarian law and human rights law, in order to protect civilians and vulnerable groups; upholding accountability for international humanitarian law; the need for robust humanitarian responses to conflict; the importance of international humanitarian law in light of new warfare technologies; and ways to address new trends in armed conflict, including urban warfare, the growing role of non-state actors and the impact of climate change. Council members are encouraged to consider the adequacy of the current international humanitarian law framework to address these issues and what advancements in the law, if any, may be necessary in order adequately to protect civilians and other protected groups in armed conflict. It also poses the question of how the Council can be more involved in finding practical solutions to international humanitarian law challenges.