The Geneva Conventions at 70: Our Ongoing Contribution to their Implementation

Marco Sassoli reading the Geneva Conventions Marco Sassoli reading the Geneva Conventions

12 August 2019

By Professor Marco Sassòli, Director of the Geneva Academy

As the Geneva Conventions turn 70, they still constitute the cornerstone of the international humanitarian law (IHL) we contribute to disseminate, interpret and implement. Based in the heart of international Geneva, at the Villa Moynier – named after Gustave Moynier, one of the co-founders of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – we teach the Geneva Conventions to students and practitioners from all around the world. The Geneva Conventions are also at the center of our research into IHL, and of countless meetings we convene among diplomats, academics, civil society and military and civilian practitioners to discuss current challenges in protecting those affected by armed conflicts.

It has been possible to adopt the Geneva Conventions back in 1949 – when the cold war started, with Stalin’s Soviet Union and the then colonial powers at the negotiating table – to provide meaningful protection for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians in particular in occupied territories. States wanted to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Second World War. Furthermore, for the first time, fundamental guarantees for all those not or no longer participating in hostilities in non-international armed conflicts, addressed to governments and rebels alike, were adopted. All this should embarrass and make those who represent States today pause, as they are unable to find consensus on even the most harmless developments of IHL and its implementing mechanisms. Indeed, the challenge today is not to update the Geneva Conventions on their few outdated aspects (such as the amount of advance of pay for prisoners of war or the prohibition for hospital ships to use a ‘secret code’), but to generate better respect for the Conventions.

Recently, states could not find consensus on a very harmless implementation mechanism initiated by Switzerland and the ICRC. Everyone agreed, however, that the Geneva Conventions are still relevant, but that their respect is insufficient. Consensus has just been lacking on the mechanism to enhance respect that was suggested. In my view, this stalemate must be overcome or the underlying hypocrisy at least unmasked. It is inconceivable to accept IHL but not to accept any mechanism at all. Should every State be allowed – but also undertake to choose its own mechanism? The result of such mechanisms could then be compared and their impact evaluated. Thus discussions would be decontextualized and relatively depoliticized, and states would be deprived of the alibi claim that they would prefer another, better mechanism. Another avenue would perhaps be to compare best practices in national implementation measures, including on how and based on what interpretations states and armed groups train weapons bearers.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, we will continue to disseminate the basic message of the Geneva Conventions that the enemy, even those we fight against for a just cause, even the ‘terrorists’, deserve basic guarantees of respect in an armed conflict. (and the details of the Geneva Conventions) in our master’s programmes by training young people who are or will eventually become the decision-makers and leaders of tomorrow.

We will also continue to clarify the meaning of these key IHL instruments in contemporary circumstances in policy studies and expert meetings.

On this important day, we are also particularly proud to have contributed to a highlight published today by the ICRC with case studies we elaborated to illustrate different aspects of the Geneva Conventions and their pivotal role or the protection of people affected by armed conflicts.

Last but not least, tomorrow, our Strategic Adviser on IHL, Dr Annyssa Bellal, has been invited, together with the President of the ICRC Peter Maurer and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel de Serpa Soares, to brief the UN Security Council on the Geneva Conventions. May this be the starting point for a new sense of ownership of the Geneva Conventions by States, armed groups and public opinion. They are part of our common heritage of humanity!

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