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Protecting people we don't like

Professor Marco Sassoli reminds us that the laws of war protect everyone, including those we consider enemies.

Thursday June 30, 2016

Prof Marco Sassoli
Dr Phoebe Wynn Pope, Director of IHL and Movement Relations at Australian Red Cross, with Professor Marco Sassoli. Photo: Australian Red Cross

The basic laws of war are easy to understand, according to Professor Marco Sassoli of the University of Geneva.  

Don't target civilians or medical facilities. Provide medical care for anyone who is wounded, regardless of which side they might be on. Treat prisoners of war humanely. Torture, rape and starvation are prohibited.  

The challenge, says Professor Sassoli, is that these rules apply to everyone.  

"The most important and difficult message is that all of this applies to enemies. You don't need a body of law to be humane to people you like."  

Marco Sassoli is one of the world's foremost experts on international humanitarian law. Currently director of the Department of International Law at the University of Geneva, he worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for many years, including missions in Jordan, Syria, Islamabad and the former Yugoslavia. On a brief visit to Australia, supported by the ICRC, he shared some of his insights with Australian Red Cross.  

Despite numerous media reports of violations of international humanitarian law, Professor Sassoli urges us to look beyond the headlines. The laws of war, he insists, are still protecting lives in armed conflicts the world over.  

"My experience is that most armed groups can be convinced to respect the law if they see it is in their interests.  

"But this presupposes that you speak with people. Anti-terrorist legislation that makes it a crime to have any contact with these groups can be an obstacle to these conversations."

ICRC delegate

The laws of war protect lives in armed conflicts all over the world. Photo: ICRC

Time and dialogue are essential to sensitise people to the idea that everyone, even their enemies, have rights. Education on international humanitarian law must continue, not only with those operating in war zones but for all people in all countries. 

The Geneva Conventions are central to this education and to the mission of Red Cross, the professor notes.  

"Not every victim will have a Red Cross delegate to protect them, but everyone has the Geneva Conventions behind them.  

"When you're in the field speaking to a corporal at a road block, you do not open up a copy of the Geneva Conventions and talk about article X point Y. But it's in the background. Everyone you speak to is a party to these conventions.  

"They are not something that come simply from Geneva; they are the common heritage of mankind."  

What are the laws of war? Find out here.