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From Principles to Practice


Speech delivered by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross, opening the Australian Red Cross Centenary Conference on International Humanitarian Law "From Principles to Practice - Securing compliance with the laws of war."

5 November 2014

Distinguished guests and Red Cross friends one and all

Why humanitarians need to be optimists - change is possible to build a better world!

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome you here to the University Club of Western Australia for our Australian Red Cross Conference 'From Principles to Practice - Securing Compliance with the Laws of War'. As you can see from the program, we have an immense depth and breadth of guests at this conference who will be sharing their diverse experience and thoughts on this critical topic.

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and thanking Shaun for his gracious welcome on behalf of his people.

It would also be remiss of me if I were to acknowledge on this significant day in our nation that today in Sydney there is a State Memorial event for the late Gough Whitlam Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975 and who has left such a footprint and legacy in our country. I agonised over the possibility of apologising for this event to be in Sydney for this memorial event but ultimately concluded that Mr Whitlam would be more than happy to see me and us here attending this important Red Cross International Humanitarian Law event.

I know however that you would like to join with me in the traditional Red Cross neutral and respectful way in standing for a minutes silence in memory of Gough Whitlam and his enduring legacy of reform as Prime Minister of Australia.

This issue of compliance with international laws - and indeed their overall utility - has been something that scholars and practitioners have debated and grappled with since their inception. But these issues are also issues so vitally important to the people of the world and especially those who are who will suffer and potentially lose their lives when International Humanitarian Law is breached. In this era where social media is so powerful we must remember that all of us are increasingly empowered to more effectively participate and engage with the global campaign to disseminate and strengthen International Humanitarian Law.

However there is no doubt that there are those who from time to time have not shared this spirt of optimism that change is possible.

Former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Jose Ayala Losso, of Ecuador, was pessimistic but incisive when he said:

'A person stands a better chance of being tried and judged for killing one human being than killing 100,000.'

Even Florence Nightingale, correspondent and friend of Henry Dunant, was initially dubious about the difference that international rules of war would make:

'It would be quite harmless for our [British] government to sign the [Geneva] Convention as it now stands. It amounts to nothing more than a declaration that humanity to the wounded is a good thing. People who keep the vow would do the same thing without the vow. And if people will not do it without the vow, they will not do it with…'

Indeed, surveying the seventy or so armed conflicts playing out in the world today, and the horrendous atrocities we hear of all too regularly, how right the reaction of despair can seem. One need only turn on the news to find some resonance in these words.

However despite the sadness and the enormous challenges I am very firmly in the camp of the optimists and a believer that change is possible. We have seen such huge shifts in the world in the life times of virtually everyone in this room including the young students who are also with us today. We have seen the fall of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful end of apartheid and the building of peace in Northern Ireland, all of which most people could not have conceived of thirty years ago. We have also seen the creation of the International Criminal Court which for all its initial limitations has been a landmark achievement in the evolution of international humanitarian law. Being an optimist I find that I am in good company!

Gustave Moynier, co-founder of the ICRC with Henry Dunant recognised the need for an international criminal court, above and beyond national domestic jurisdictions, as early as the 1870s.

Compliance would be tough to achieve, he knew, and yet he said:

'We [the Red Cross] do not have the right to give way to discouragement. As long as there are wars, we must do all we can to better safeguard populations and to better aid war victims. Do not forget that this beautiful and ambitious task lies behind all of your work.'

It is certainly the view we at Australian Red Cross continue to share with our International Red Cross Red Crescent colleagues to this day, in our efforts to promote understanding, respect and implementation for IHL around the world. We must press on, towards the point where International Humanitarian Law knows real respect, and has real 'teeth', despite every obstacle.

Indeed, a prime aim of the world-wide Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and most particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross, is to assist and protect the victims of armed conflict. Ever since the efforts of Henry Dunant's earliest volunteers on the battlefield at Solferino, the humanitarian care of the sick and wounded, and later of the shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians, has been central to our existence. The ICRC is described as the 'custodian' or 'guardian' of the Geneva Conventions, and continually strives to improve and supplement IHL protections in order to minimise the suffering of war.

National Societies such as Australian Red Cross play a vital role as champions of these laws within their own countries, regions and contexts, creating a strong Movement network, globally grappling with these issues from different angles. In my view there is a huge potential for the 189 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies present in most countries of the world --to play a far more active role in supporting the leadership of the ICRC in championing International Humanitarian Law in line with the principles and agreed resolutions of our Movement. There are real opportunities to co-ordinate organised and strategic global representations to governments around the world to shape future policy to meet our international humanitarian law agenda. This will require work to support the organisational development and capacity building of some national societies but there is no doubt that this humanitarian diplomacy and advocacy in line with our Movement Principles must be an important part of our work globally as it is in Australia.

One of the most important tasks that the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement takes in trying to ensure compliance is that of dissemination, in other words, promotion and education of these laws.

What are we aiming to achieve? Can our efforts really decrease violence in armed conflict, and temper the behaviour of combatants, and indeed civilians, in war? For us of course ultimately the goal is not to effectively bring criminals to justice, but to prevent their crimes in the first place. As Moynier says, the Red Cross most of all must believe this idea - that immersing each society and culture with the content and values of IHL, can, actually ensure that more rules are obeyed and that suffering is minimised. The issues of effectiveness, and lessons learned, from our dissemination efforts, will be a point of discussion during this conference.

In the field, Red Cross staff see first-hand the effects of IHL breaches. Men and women are victims of sexual violence and often left as outcasts from their communities. Suburbs, homes and schools bombed into rubble devastate lives and economic futures. Child soldiers, forced to fight wars from the age of seven and eight, face lifelong psychological trauma and stigma. Medical staff tend to war wounded, caught up in the fighting and often victims of unexploded ordinances. Populations flee across borders, terrified of the arrival of armed groups. Prisoners and detainees are too often held in inhumane conditions, without contact with family.

How could the Red Cross, with its ideals and its inextricable connections with international humanitarian law, not be ever increasingly concerned with compliance? The stark reality of suffering on the ground screams for stronger observance of IHL.

But it is not just Red Cross that is concerned with stronger compliance of IHL. One must consider the vital, complementary roles of different actors in ensuring compliance; which is why I am so pleased we have speakers who can address this from very different viewpoints. Academics, field practitioners, prosecutors, judges and government officials - what an enriching and deep discussion we will have over these next two days with this breadth of experience and perspectives in the room.

In terms of war crimes prosecutions, it is important to stress at the outset of our journey, the neutrality of Red Cross, and its deliberate and determined standing back from public allegations and involvement in war crimes trials. Delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, bound by confidentiality, do not give evidence at war crimes trials. To do so would cut off vital access to those victims who most need protection.

The role of establishing of international courts has largely fallen to the United Nations - for example, its International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda - or hybrid courts in conjunction with national governments. Both have broken incredible legal ground over the past twenty years and are huge steps forward for collective global responsibility for compliance with the laws of war.

National governments of course have an absolutely vital role. Fundamental to their ratification of the Geneva Conventions is their obligation 'to respect, and to ensure respect', for the Conventions. The responsibility is then handed on to their government lawyers and military forces, and an array of rules of engagement, weapons restrictions, training, internal discipline regimes and treaty ratification and implementation follows from that.

Rights-based lobby groups, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, amongst others, believe in public denunciation - that naming and shaming breaches of international humanitarian law before the world has the power to temper behaviour and force responsibility.

This variety of approaches provides an important web of effort, each bolstering the approach of the other. What are the next steps to ensure compliance, and how do we best work together? This question too is a key theme of the papers to come.

When Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, witnessed the enormous human suffering on the battlefield in Solferino, he could not possibly have imagined how different battlefields around the world would look in 2014. Cavalry has been replaced by high-tech transportation on land, sea and air; rifles have been replaced by automated and in the future potentially fully autonomous weaponry; and to a large extent, battlefields are no longer fields at all - more and more conflicts are taking place in urban areas and cities. Many arms carriers, long since abandoning forms of recognisable uniform, blur into the civilian population. In the face of asymmetric warfare, some groups reject traditional concepts of distinction. Non-state actors often feel less sense of ownership over these laws, often remaining outside the international community and its structures. Other rebel groups may well not have heard that rules of war exist. While some 122 nations have accepted the authority of the International Criminal Court, we see alleged war criminals indicted but still hiding behind national borders. Undeniably the international community has work to do in the face of these problems, and papers delivered at this conference will tackle the issues in depth.

However despite all these challenges and shortcomings, there have been some successes. First and foremost, we must remember that as we examine how warfare has, and continues to change, the basic laws of war as set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols remain. It is quite remarkable to reflect on the one hand on the extraordinary changes to modern warfare that have taken place in just the law two decades, and at the same time marvel at how the laws regulating warfare have continued to reduce human suffering in some of the most appalling situations on the planet for the last two centuries. International Humanitarian Law continues to balance military necessity with humanity. Armed forces, more than ever, are held accountable when violations occur and a huge number of treaties have been created to add further strength to the IHL framework, particularly in relation to the means and methods of warfare. Furthermore, the Red Cross continues its work in war zones and promoting the laws of war using the same fundamental tenets established in the 19th Century. Whilst the environments in which we now work would be unrecognisable to Henry Dunant, his ambition to relieve human suffering in a neutral, independent and impartial manner is still evident in the work of the Movement around the world.

I think it is important to reflect on this in 2014 and it is indeed a very pertinent moment in history for Australian Red Cross to be hosting this conference on securing stronger compliance with IHL. This year marks 150 years since the formation of the ICRC, 150 years since the adoption of the First Geneva Convention, and 100 years since the founding of Australian Red Cross. What a remarkable convergence of dates, and what an important moment to reflect on where we have come and the significant challenges that remain for the future.

I wish you well for your deliberations of the next two days. Listen carefully, speak wisely, share enthusiastically, think deeply. We all have so much to learn from each other, so much to achieve in turning 'Principles to Practice to Secure Compliance with the Laws of War.'

Welcome to this Conference. May it be rewarding and fruitful in moving towards that shared, lofty and urgently needed goal.

Above all else stay an optimist, stay a believer and a worker for a better world.

I am voting for the optimists to win and I hope you will too!