The International Committee of the Red Cross is calling for greater compliance with the rules of war by states and armed groups around the world. As the ICRC marks the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions on August 12, the Swiss humanitarian agency warns that many of the laws signed in 1949 to protect civilians and other vulnerable people caught in war are not being respected. The Conventions set out rules governing the conduct of international wars. But since 1949, these wars have increasingly given way to civil conflicts and few of the rules in the Conventions apply to them.
International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger, says the Geneva Conventions are still relevant. But he agrees that far too many of the laws of war are being violated.
Although Kellenberger says Red Cross delegates in the field regularly witness violations ranging from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate attacks and ill treatment of civilians, he notes it is not the norm.
"I would simply like to say it would be quite a wrong impression if one were to think that the violations are the rule and the respect of the law is the exception," Kellenberger said.
Kellenberger says Red Cross delegates intervene in conflicts all over the world and they are instrumental in improving conditions of detention and preventing the forcible return of displaced people to their homes.
He says more and more armed conflicts are taking place in civilian areas, not in separate battlefields. This not only increases the risk to civilians, he says, but it makes it more difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Kellenberger says it is vitally important that this distinction be made because a growing number of civilians are being deliberately targeted due to their supposed involvement in hostilities.
"If you are interpreting this concept too widely, far too many civilians become lawful targets," Kellenberger said. "So if you want to maximize the protection of civilians, it is very important to have a very clear and narrow definition of direct participation of hostilities."
Kellenberger says he does not think that respect for international humanitarian law has weakened globally. But he acknowledges that in some respects the Geneva Conventions have been undermined since the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001.
Analysts say the relevance of international humanitarian law is supported by the findings of a recent opinion poll that surveyed 4,000 people across eight war-torn countries. The survey indicates that while people believe the Geneva Conventions are important and should be respected, rules of war should be better enforced.