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'Missed opportunity' to strengthen rules of war

States failed to agree on a much-anticipated resolution to enhance compliance with international humanitarian law.

Monday December 14, 2015

Photo: IFRC

The 32nd Conference of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent ended last week, with many successes and a singular failure - there was no agreement on a resolution to enhance compliance with international humanitarian law.  

"This is a missed opportunity," said Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope, Director of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) at Australian Red Cross.  

"Not since the second world war have we seen human suffering on such an overwhelming scale, nor such an urgent need for armed actors to comply with their obligations under international law.  

"We know that people who play no part in the fighting bear the burden of today's armed conflicts - civilians, healthcare workers, and other humanitarian actors - and we know that compliance with IHL is the only way to protect them."  

The case for greater compliance  

Disturbing trends in today's armed conflicts reflect the need for genuine action to increase compliance with the laws of war. Attacks on healthcare workers and facilities, such as the bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières' Kunduz Hospital, occur with devastating regularity, despite their protected status under the laws of war. Explosive weapons are indiscriminately used in urban areas, causing alarming rates of civilian casualties, and destruction of buildings and infrastructure necessary for the survival and dignity of those who live in war-torn areas. Meanwhile, civilian men, women, and children experience appalling and unacceptable rates of sexual violence in situations of war. It is vital that dialogue and action on IHL compliance continue.  

A resolution to strengthen compliance, strongly supported by the Australian delegation, was presented at the conference. If passed, it would have led to the creation of an annual meeting of States that have signed on to the Geneva Conventions; a voluntary and apolitical forum for sharing best practice and technical expertise on compliance with IHL. Instead, States have committed to work on methods intended to enhance national systems, legal frameworks and policies relevant to IHL, with the outcomes of these discussions to be presented at the 33rd International Conference in 2019. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement will continue engaging with States on compliance, in hopes of improving accountability and respect for IHL.

Other outcomes of the International Conference  

"Despite the setback, there remains much to celebrate this week," Dr Wynn Pope said. "Other significant resolutions, such as a commitment of States and the Movement to work on the prevention, prohibition, and punishment of sexual and gender based violence, were successfully adopted and will provide the Movement with a strong foundation for action on many issues of humanitarian concern."  

Other resolutions adopted at the conference included enhancing protections for people in detention in non-international armed conflict, strengthening protections for humanitarian volunteers and health care workers as well as a strong commitment from States to establish laws and procedures to support humanitarian responses to disasters.  

Whatever the unknown challenges the future holds, Australian Red Cross will continue to work for the protection of the most vulnerable, the rights and dignity of those affected by war and disaster, and to call for compliance with the laws of armed conflict.  

Learn more about the laws of war