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War has limits and we need to know them


There have been recent calls for the laws of war to be disregarded. We feel rather strongly about that.

Monday October 24, 2016

People who fled vioelnce in Mosul
When the laws of war are ignored, cilvilians like this grandmother and her grandson from Mosul are the ones who suffer most. Photo: IFRC/Joe Cropp

First published ABC Online, 24 October 2016.

Shocking images from Syria and Mosul have led our public conversation to a topic fundamental to our common humanity: What behaviour are we prepared to accept in war? 

The Mosul offensive launched last week is likely to see up to a million people fleeing for safety as the fighting progresses. Meanwhile in Australia and around the world, there have been calls for the laws of war to be disregarded for some combatants. 

Working with Australian Red Cross, I believe very strongly that even wars have laws and they apply to everyone. Their fundamental purpose is to prevent atrocity, to protect those who are not fighting, to contain the damage and preserve life, insofar as that is possible.  

The laws of war are called international humanitarian law with good reason. Their intent is to limit how wars are fought, in an effort to balance humanity with the demands of military necessity.  

In essence, these are the laws of war: don't target civilians or medical facilities, provide medical care to anyone who's wounded, regardless of which side they're on. Treat prisoners of war humanely. Don't torture, rape or starve people.  

Right now, respect for humanitarian law is all the people of Mosul can hope for, not simply from those holding the city but from those attacking it. These are the laws that might prevent a missile strike on a building full of children, or allow civilians to leave a conflict zone. That means wounded soldiers can receive medical care and those providing that care don't get shot. 

These laws apply to everyone involved in the fight, and so they speak to our common humanity.   They also protect our own soldiers, wherever they are. Were Australian soldiers to be captured by enemy combatants, the Geneva Conventions say that they must be treated humanely.  

If we stop holding ourselves accountable these laws, we have no right to hope for their protection.   The argument we often hear - from all sides - is that not all parties are capable of behaving in accordance with these laws.  

For our common survival, we need to move past this. The laws of war are taught to our armed forces, championed by our governments, agreed at a global level.  

They are a starting point for a conversation about how to behave even while bombs are falling and guns firing, so that our conflicts do not engulf and destroy everyone and everything we love.  

My colleague, Professor Marco Sassoli of the University of Geneva, says that the most difficult part of the laws of war is that they apply to everyone, even people we don't like.  

If we seek justice for the crimes of our enemies, then we must be held accountable for our own actions. If we want them to treat our captured soldiers humanely, we have to do the same to theirs. If we want a world worth fighting for, the starting point is our common humanity and the rule of law.  

It's simple to say and hard to believe, especially when we hear tales of atrocity from all around the world. But in these times we seek light in the darkness, small signs that humanity can prevail.  

The release of 21 kidnapped girls in Nigeria this week may be one such candle of hope. The delivery of food and medicines to besieged towns in Syria is another.  

That's why I want our country to champion international humanitarian law. Why I want all soldiers on all sides of a conflict to remain accountable for their actions. Why I want all of us to know why even wars have laws.  

Phoebe Wynn-Pope is Director of International Humanitarian Law at Australian Red Cross.    

Learn more about the laws of war 

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