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Australia and IHL

Australia has been involved in a range of armed conflicts and situations of tension within our region and internationally. Representatives from the Australian Defence Force, Australian Federal Police, government departments and non-government organisations all need to understand and apply the rules of IHL.

Respect for IHL in places where Australians are deployed is vital to their own protection.

More broadly, it is important that Australia remains a respected member of the international community, with a military reputation for respecting the laws of armed conflict and national leadership in matters such as the ratification of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Importance of IHL for the Australian community

Members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are required to understand the rules contained in IHL and to respect the limitations placed on the conduct of hostilities. Legal officers within the ADF are trained to provide advice on IHL, and international law must be taken into account in decisions relating to the use of specific weapons.

It is not only members of the ADF who are deployed to conflicts and situations of tension, but also representatives of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), government departments (such as AusAID) and many members of Australia's humanitarian sector (such as non-government organisations). With such active involvement it is vital, both for domestic legitimacy and to ensure Australia continues to be a respected member of the international community, that the rules of IHL are known and obeyed by all who represent Australia. The application and respect of IHL by all parties provides vital protections for these Australian overseas.

Australia has a very active humanitarian sector which provides assistance globally, in particular during times of war. IHL contains a range of laws relating to the rights and obligations of providing impartial humanitarian assistance, and thus for this sector of the Australian community, IHL is a very valuable tool.

Journalists, particularly foreign correspondents, are similar in that they directly apply IHL. Some need the protection of IHL on the front line; others report news at home and must write about the law accurately.

The general community must be informed about correct use of the red cross emblem not only to avoid penalties under Commonwealth law. but to have a genuine understanding of why the emblem must be protected, and the unique role of the Red Cross, particularly in times of armed conflict.

While the executive arm of government has primary responsibility for Australia's IHL obligations parliamentarians also have a critical role to play in enacting legislation that ensures IHL is legally binding in Australia - on government, public officials and civil society. Parliamentarians undertake a range of actions to promote respect for IHL including ensuring that Australia is a party to IHL treaties, adopting legislation to effectively implement IHL obligations domestically, protecting the emblems and supporting the dissemination of IHL in the community.

One of the most important elements of IHL to be incorporated into domestic law is the capacity to prosecute individuals who violate IHL. As a country that aims for internal harmony, and draws strength from the diversity of its population, demonstrating a capacity and will to prosecute accused war criminals is part of Australia's long and short-term interests.

For IHL to be useful in times of war it must be understood during times of peace. When conflict does occur, it is often too late. There are many preventative measures which must be acted upon during times of peace to ensure compliance is possible during conflict.

For all these reasons IHL has a strong relevance to Australians.

Photo: Australian Defence Force

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