It can be seen clearly in the development of law regulating and restricting the use of certain weapons. As early as the mid-1800s, treaties have attempted to prohibit indiscriminate and inhumane weapons – certain exploding projectiles were prohibited in 1868, and bullets that flatten upon entering the human body were prohibited in 1899. Throughout the 20th century, the international community extended and strengthened these prohibitions to also include biological and chemical weapons, munitions that use fragments not detectable by x-ray, blinding laser weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. And in 2020, a year that has seen the international community face one of its most significant challenges in Covid-19, countries have confirmed their commitment to the principle of humanity, with the 50th ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons signalling the first comprehensive prohibition of these weapons.
International Committee of the Red Cross staff help former detainees held in Yemen to be reunited with their families. Photo: Mubarak Saeed
This balancing act can also be seen in action in humanitarian protection. For example, when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent were able to act as neutral humanitarian intermediaries in December 2016. Together they coordinated the evacuation of 35,000 civilians from Aleppo, Syria, including 100 critically wounded and sick patients prior to military bombardment. It has also meant that, last month, more than 1,000 families could be reunited with loved ones who had been detained during the conflict in Yemen. It was the largest ICRC and Saudi Red Crescent operation of its kind in the five-and-a-half-year war.
The need for this balancing act manifests most clearly on the battlefield, but the universal commitment to the notion that there must be humanity in war extends far beyond this. This commitment is perhaps most clearly articulated in the obligation on countries to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, not only by their armed forces but any individuals or groups under their control.
This obligation, found in common Article 1 to the Geneva Conventions, is twofold. Firstly, there is a negative duty – an undertaking to ensure one does not ‘encourage, nor aid or assist in violations of the Conventions’. Secondly, there is a positive duty, to ‘take proactive steps to bring violations of the Conventions to an end and to bring an erring Party to a conflict back to an attitude of respect for the Conventions’. The latter, coupled with established norms of international law also requires governments to investigate and prosecute serious violations of IHL, including war crimes.