The Geneva Conventions and related international law need to be updated to reflect the fact that most conflicts nowadays take place inside states not between them, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
The conventions remain relevant, preventing humanitarian disasters from Darfur to Sri Lanka from turning out even worse than they have, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger told Reuters.
But with most conflicts happening inside borders not internationally, and most of the fighting conducted not by governments but by rebel groups -“armed non-state actors” in the diplomatic jargon -the conventions and treaties need to be revised, he said in an interview.
The comments highlight some of the main areas the world community needs to focus on to limit the fall-out from armed conflict on civilians and prevent war crimes.
The distinction between direct participants in a conflict and those not directly involved must be clarified, he said ahead of next week’s 60th anniversary of the adoption of the fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in armed conflict.
“It’s quite clear that the non-respect of international humanitarian law by non-state armed actors is a big problem,” the softly-spoken former Swiss diplomat said.
Working with rebel groups poses all sorts of problems such as access to them -often in remote and dangerous areas -or understanding their structure and who is in charge.
But Kellenberger said such non-state groups are bound by international humanitarian law. Some groups understand this, he said, pointing to the ICRC’s work with movements in Sudan, where the organisation has its biggest operation.
Two weeks ago Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement freed 55 Sudanese soldiers and five policemen through the ICRC.
“It’s not the first time that rebel groups in Darfur have, through the ICRC, released prisoners,” Kellenberger said.
“That’s one of the unique features of the ICRC-it is in dialogue with all parties to the conflict, be it states, be it non-state actors.”
The creation of the ICC has helped by making it clear that those who commit war crimes can face prosecution in a national or international court, he said.
“I’m really convinced that one of the best things to get better respect of international humanitarian law is just to close the way to impunity.”
International humanitarian law has not stood still since 1949, he said, pointing to three additional Geneva protocols and conventions banning anti-personnel mines and cluster weapons.
The Red Cross rarely talks about countries where it is having difficulty pursuing its humanitarian goals, preferring to work discreetly behind the scenes.
Kellenberger said the ICRC had access to a growing number of Iraqi-run prisons in Iraq, its second-biggest operation, even if some are still too dangerous to visit, and he has personally visited Bagram prison in Afghanistan.
In Sri Lanka it continues to visit detention centres but disagrees about the scope of its work with the government, which called last month for aid agencies to scale down operations after the end of the 25-year civil war.
“We have now divergences of view with the government of Sri Lanka about how and where to continue, so we have to clarify the situation with the government of Sri Lanka and we will do that within the coming weeks,” he said.
Pic: Horn fighters in Somalia