Recently, the name “International Humanitarian Law” (abbreviated IHL) has been heard more and more often – that is, a set of norms and rules for conducting war. We often hear about his violations on TV, write about it in the press, and discuss politicians. But, in fact, few people understand what it is and why it is so important. Since once upon a time I was seriously engaged in disseminating knowledge about IHL, and even have a specialist certificate, today I will talk about its main provisions, violations and what it threatens.
My name is Oleg, I am in Kyiv, and I am writing this text in completely unhappy times. Not many days have passed since the invasion of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, and right now explosions are occasionally heard outside the window. But nevertheless, let’s get back to the topic of today’s article, it is really important.
What does the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) do?
At the very beginning, it is worth knowing how international humanitarian law is related to the Red Cross. I will not talk about the history of the creation of this organization, its structure and areas of responsibility. Let me just say that in 1949, many countries thought that even for war, rules are needed. That is, certain norms that would regulate the conduct of hostilities, respectively, liability is provided for their violation.
Then 4 Geneva Conventions and additional protocols to them were adopted, which became the basis for International Humanitarian Law. In turn, it was the International Committee of the Red Cross that was entrusted with two main functions:
- dissemination of knowledge about IHL;
- drawing attention to his violations.
And also, assistance in the role of a neutral party in the implementation of its tasks.
Contrary to the belief that is ingrained in the minds of many people, the Red Cross is not a medical organization! Rather, humanitarian law. Although, of course, it can contribute to the delivery of medicines, the organization of the work of doctors and hospitals.
Contents of the Geneva Conventions
What does the Geneva Conventions say? In a nutshell, the main points are:
- Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field (August 12, 1949) It states that a wounded or “incapacitated” enemy is entitled to the treatment and care his current condition requires. Also, separately, both sides of the military conflict undertake to assist in the search for those killed or missing.
- Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of the Armed Forces (same date of adoption). In fact, this document repeats all the same rules as in the first convention, but taking into account the specifics of being at sea.
- Geneva Convention concerning the Treatment of Prisoners of War (same date). As the name implies, the document regulates the physical, moral, psychological conditions of prisoners of war, the right of relatives to learn about their fate, and much more.
- Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (same date). Perhaps the most important convention that protects civilians during hostilities. In short, according to it, the parties to a military conflict must make a clear distinction between combatants (military) and the civilian population. And also between military and civilian objects. That is, any acts of violence against the civilian population, causing harm to civilian objects are prohibited. Separately, the use of weapons of an indiscriminate nature, which has a large radius of destruction, leads to excessive torment, is limited.
This is a very, very brief retelling of the essence of international humanitarian law, or as it is called “the rights of war.” In addition, it also talks about humanitarian aid, assistance in organizing “green corridors”, the protection of medical personnel and facilities, the search for the missing, and much more.
About the International Court of Justice in The Hague
I spoke about the Geneva Conventions and the role of the Red Cross. But, most likely, you have a natural question – what is the punishment for violating the principles of IHL? Everything is quite simple here. If violations were recorded, then the same International Court in The Hague, which, I am sure, you have already heard, enters into the matter. This is the highest judicial body that considers cases of grave war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity. In addition, the states participating in the military conflict themselves, as a rule, have military tribunals that determine the punishment for such crimes.
This is all theory, but let’s move on to practice.
What can not be done in the war? Punishment for war crimes
Although I spoke briefly, but in sufficient detail, what is International Humanitarian Law, the Geneva Conventions, The Hague. In general, violation of the “rules of war” is a very, very serious accusation. At the same time, both an individual and accomplices of a crime can be in the dock. Summarizing, one can even say that a whole regime, command, government, and even indirectly a country as a party to the conflict can be accused of a crime against humanity. But in practice, everything is much more complicated.
The fact is that even after the emergence of International Humanitarian Law and the signing of the Geneva Conventions by countries (including Russia and Ukraine), the parties do not always comply with them. Instead, we often see actions that can be summed up in one phrase – “in war, all methods are good.” The peaceful, civilian population suffers, civilian objects become targets, robberies, looting, violence, bullying, and murders occur. Unfortunately, this is the unsightly truth of any war.
At the same time, they can violate the norms of international law and commit war crimes both purposefully, as a point of a certain plan, and spontaneously. In the first case, the command and / or the government is perfectly aware of the crime being committed, in the second, individuals rely on the fact that in the chaos of hostilities, their crimes will not be noticed. A separate category may not know about the “rules of war” at all. That, however, does not relieve them of responsibility.
An ordinary civilian who has become a victim of war often does not believe that war crimes will be investigated and the perpetrators will get what they deserve. In fact, in vain – although this is a long process, but in the vast majority of cases, even after many years, the prosecutor’s office and investigators seek the truth. Yes, this sounds too optimistic in the current realities, but every combatant (participant in hostilities) should remember a few things:
- Violation of the Geneva Conventions can lead to very, very severe consequences. As a rule, these are long prison terms.
- Obedience to a criminal order can be equated with complicity in a crime.
- It is forbidden to use weapons and any violence against the civilian population, to harm civilian objects.
Evaluation of the work of the ICRC in Ukraine
Finally, a few words about the Red Cross. Or, to be more precise, remarks. Personally, my observation indicates that the organization needs to become a little more flexible, more efficient and bolder in its work.
I remember that I personally witnessed how, after the start of the conflict in Donbas, an ICRC delegation arrived in Kyiv. It consisted mainly of foreigners who were completely unfamiliar with the specifics of our country. Which, spent days, weeks and months only to “get into position” and understand the situation. As a result, what could be done in a few hours stretched out over many days. But it was possible to involve competent, knowledgeable local specialists in the work. Separately, I would like to recall the indecisiveness of the representatives of the Red Cross in resolving burning issues, the fear of taking the initiative, and attempts to avoid responsibility.
And now, in fact, I do their work on my own, without any benefit – I tell you about International Humanitarian Law! Well, I hope this has been helpful, and in doing so I have contributed to a very important cause. I wish you a peaceful sky above your head! No war!