"Though we can't eradicate wars, we can contribute to reducing the harm they cause."

Contemporary international humanitarian law took shape with the successive adoptions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols as well as several other treaties. Though rules are established, they are often disregarded during armed conflicts. Switzerland actively seeks to prevent international humanitarian law from being an empty shell, explains Ambassdor Valentin Zellweger, head of the FDFA's Directorate of International Law.

Ambassador Valentin Zellweger
Valentin Zellweger took up office as head of the FDFA's Directorate of International Law in 2010.

Ambassador Zellweger, what does 'international humanitarian law' mean today in 2014, 150 years after the first Geneva Convention was signed?
International humanitarian law is today as relevant as ever. It can be understood as 'the law of war', meaning law that applies to armed conflict. International humanitarian law aims above all to humanise wars as much as possible. You may point out that wars are a plague we must abolish... Obviously. Other sectors of international law deal with that. For its part, international humanitarian law has a realistic approach which states that, as long as wars exist, let us do what we can to
develop rules to protect the victims of conflict.

And if the rules are not followed? Think of Syria. Are we not witnessing serious violations of international humanitarian law there?
Indeed. The application of this law is a great challenge. Progress has been made, but we must do more and better.

Is this not wishful thinking?
Would you tell a doctor he is useless because diseases still exist? Once again, the goal of international humanitarian law and Switzerland's role as a state party to the Geneva Conventions, is not to avoid or eradicate wars. But we can contribute to reducing the harm they cause. It is essential to take a long-term perspective on the development of international humanitarian law. See, for example, the actions of a state against its own people: until after the Second World War, the civilian population enjoyed only very limited protection under international humanitarian law. Today, attacks on civilians are formally banned, not to mention their condemnation by public opinion. As for the use of weapons, several are now specifically forbidden, like the chemical weapons which caused so many casualties during the First World War, anti-personnel mines or cluster munitions. We have also taken great strides in the repression of war crimes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created to prosecute and punish the authors of atrocities. There are many other examples. To come back to my medical analogy: diseases continue to exist today, yet we are able to reduce suffering and to increase life expectancy.

Nonetheless, chemical weapons have been used in Syria despite being banned.
Yes, but we probably wouldn't be as outraged if there were no international humanitarian law at all. What we can do is punish war crimes more severely, which is why the ICC exists. In practical terms, Switzerland has asked the latter to prosecute the authors of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. In parallel, Switzerland actively seeks to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population by offering humanitarian aid. From this perspective, it should be noted that it is precisely international humanitarian law that legislates the right to humanitarian assistance for any population group that falls victim to a conflict.

What can Switzerland do, and what is it doing, to ensure that international humanitarian law is better enforced on an international scale?
I could mention many examples of initiatives spearheaded by Switzerland. One example of this is the Montreux Document adopted in 2008 and a reminder of the judicial framework applicable to private military and security companies. Since 2011, Switzerland and the ICRC have led another ambitious initiative that aims to institutionalise a compliance system for international humanitarian law for States Parties to the Geneva Conventions. A Third Meeting of States took place June 30 and July 1 in Geneva. We reaffirmed the importance of regular Meetings of States and of setting up a system of periodical reports on the application of international humanitarian law at the national level.

Practically speaking, how would that change the situation?
Firstly, it would allow for systematic discussion on the application of international humanitarian law, in particular on the basis of state reports. Switzerland also calls for institutionalising a fact-finding mechanism to determine the circumstances of alleged violations of the law. Secondly, regular Meetings of States would provide an exchange platform on good practices observed to date and outstanding problems, relating, for instance, to the obligation on armed groups to follow international law or the challenges posed by the use of new weapon technologies, such as drones or robots. Lastly, we can hope that Meetings of States would provide an institutional anchor for the development of future mechanisms. All of these measures would fill a major gap, namely that international humanitarian law is the only field of international law currently without the necessary institutions to improve its respect.

Last update 26.01.2022

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