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Address on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

Geneva, Switzerland
“The Geneva Conventions give force to a simple but enduring idea – that we must do everything we can to protect civilians and reduce suffering in war.”

Mme Foreign Minister Calmy Rey, State Councillor Moutinot, Mayor Pagani, President Kellenberger, Excellences, ladies and gentleman, I am honoured to be here and for this chance to celebrate and reflect on the 60th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

Let me start by thanking the Government of Switzerland – and Mrs Calmy-Rey in particular – along with Mr Kellenberger and the ICRC for organizing this important conference.

Both Switzerland and the ICRC are rightly identified around the world for advancing humanitarian principles and a determination to alleviate suffering.

This timely initiative to strengthen the application of the Geneva Conventions underlines that there is no let up in this commitment. I am pleased to have been asked to be part of it.

The Geneva Conventions give force to a simple but enduring idea – that we must do everything we can to protect civilians and reduce suffering in war.

It is an appeal to our common humanity, grounded in shared and ancient values from the idea of “warrior’s honour”, to the protection of the innocent.

The fact that the Geneva Conventions are universally ratified is a measure of their enduring appeal and success.

But our celebrations today must also galvanise us to further extend and improve protection to those caught in conflict.

For all around us, we see evidence of the continuing inhumanity of those waging war and their blatant disregard for the rules set out in the Conventions.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, militias and military are carrying out killings and mass rape.

In Sri Lanka, thousands of civilians were killed in the fighting between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers. Tens of thousands more remain interned in camps.

The people of Somalia are again caught between the guns of rival militias. The terrible tragedy of Darfur continues.

And across the world, terrorists deliberately detonate bombs to maim and kill innocent civilians.

The state response too often and too readily is to resort to indiscriminate attacks and abuse of detainees.

The war on terror must not be an excuse to disregard international law.

There are some who claim that this catalogue of horror is, at least partially, the result of a failure of the Conventions we are celebrating today.

They argue that rules developed 60 years ago have not kept pace with a changing world where armed conflicts are no longer predominantly between states, or waged by conventional forces or with conventional weapons.

The truth, however, is that the law has not been static. Steps have been taken to address the new reality of warfare.

The Conventions have been adapted to better cover civil wars and armed groups.

In recent years, new conventions have been agreed to ban or restrict weapons that kill or injure indiscriminately, such as landmines and cluster munitions.

So let us be clear. It is not the rules that are to blame for the callous disregard for civilian life we see. It is the Rulers who disregard them, or allow or encourage those under their command to do so.

We have to ask ourselves why they take these decisions to flout internationally-agreed rules and standards.

They do so because they calculate they have little to fear and little to lose from their defiance.

Our challenge is to alter the balance of the calculation they make.

If yesterday’s accomplishment was to set the rules, tomorrow’s challenge is to effectively bind the rulers to these laws.

To achieve this, we must raise the cost of non-compliance, to undermine both the ability and willingness of those in authority to defy agreed international standards.

There are, of course, a range of strategies to meet these goals. I want to focus primarily today on two.

I believe those in charge are able to ignore the rules, in large part because they, and their supporters, can deflect charges that war crimes are being committed.

They manufacture, or rely on, a culture of denial. In many cases, leaders, their allies and whole populations deny even the most well documented abuse.

And secondly, I believe the willingness to flout the law also stems on the still too tenuous link between committing war crimes and the likelihood of being held to account.

Let’s turn first to the culture of denial. We’ve seen how this unfolds time after time.

Humanitarian and human rights groups issue damning reports. UN experts and ad hoc commissions investigate.

A factual record builds, often quite quickly, that war crimes are being committed.

Not surprisingly, those held responsible find these facts inconvenient, and set out to discredit them.

The detailed documentation of an atrocity is met with outright denial.

Appeals are made for support from regional or ideological allies.

Too often such support is given and then amplified by a biased media. Established facts are dismissed as lies.

The result is dispute and dissent where there should be common outrage and a shared commitment to act.

We can’t expect, of course, those with so little regard for human suffering to readily accept responsibility for their conduct.

Indeed, the murder of journalists and human rights defenders exposes their brutal determination to hide the truth.

But I am deeply worried by the success of these tactics of denial in changing the opinion of ordinary people on different sides of the conflict, and, in turn, creating competing worldviews.

We urgently need to build the legitimacy of the factual record to undermine the culture of denial and force acknowledgement of crimes.

This requires us to recognize that civil society and ad hoc commissions can only do so much.

It is to states and their leaders – and the national and international institutions they control – that we must focus our efforts.

We must end their selectivity when pointed to credible accounts of atrocity and war crimes – accounts they themselves often request.

They can’t be allowed to pick and choose, embracing some reports, and rejecting others, even when produced by the same body applying the same standards.

This selectivity is corrosive to the rule of law. To its shame, the Security Council is all too ready to play this game.

If States distrust the ad hoc character of expert reports or commissions of inquiry, it is well within their power to establish bodies permanently tasked with documenting abuses.

Indeed there is already provision for such a body under Additional Protocol 1 – but it has never been called on.

It should be empowered to launch investigations at its own initiative and given the resources to do so effectively.

In tackling this culture of denial, we must also recognize how much easier it is to discredit the facts when the spotlight of inquiry shines selectively, avoiding the powerful or those they choose to shield.

The accusation of double standards, that powerful states avoid scrutiny, while weak states attract it too readily, cannot be brushed aside easily.

The plain fact is that gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law are being ignored in too many countries.

Many argue that the UN or its Human Rights Council have given undue attention to the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories.

As the balanced and detailed Goldstone report makes clear, serious abuses were committed by all sides to the conflict in Gaza earlier this year.

But as long as equally serious abuses in other countries in the Middle East or elsewhere are subject to neither full inquiry nor condemnation, the charge of bias will carry weight.

This charge will be wielded, of course, by those who cynically seek to deflect scrutiny.

But whatever the reason, it undermines the work of those who rely on these official reports to advance adherence to the rule of law.

Building the legitimacy of the factual record, therefore, means steps must be taken to monitor and report abuse, wherever and whenever it occurs.

Currently, a decision by the UN to scrutinize abuses requires a specific mandate. At the level of the Security Council these will be rare. When scrutiny is the exception, it will always be held hostage to the politics of the day.

So there is a strong case for moving to a system that makes scrutiny the norm.

The existence of armed conflict, of whatever nature, should immediately and automatically trigger scrutiny and reporting of compliance with humanitarian and human rights law.

This would happen in exactly the same way that the United Nation’s relief and development agencies automatically respond to major humanitarian catastrophes.

But while exposing abuse is essential, it will not on its own change behaviour or increase the protection that civilians need.

We need to ensure there is a much stronger link between breaking international humanitarian law and being held to account for it.

For much of the past 60 years this link has been missing.

War criminals rarely faced justice. National courts lacked the will or mandate to act.

Amnesties were too frequently given as part of peace accords.

Where conflict raged and repression reigned, few dared to speak out for the victims. For many, international justice seemed an illusion.
Thankfully, momentously, this is beginning to change.

The creation in 1998 of the International Criminal Court was as important an act, in its own way, as the drafting of the Geneva Conventions.

Alongside the ICC, and indeed a spur to its creation, are the International Criminal Tribunals set up to punish genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

International justice is also at work, alongside national judicial systems, in Cambodia and Sierra Leone.

There has been another development, as significant and perhaps with even greater potential.

National courts in many countries have shown themselves ready to exercise forms of universal jurisdiction to enforce the Geneva Conventions and human rights standards against those responsible for abuses, regardless of where the crime was committed.

Courts have also demonstrated their willingness to overturn amnesty laws that shield war criminals.

International justice has gone from an abstract concept to a reality. Impunity is in retreat.

But the battle is far from over. Many countries, including some of the most powerful have not ratified the ICC statute.

Many who have are still not living up to their obligations.

So our challenge – tomorrow’s challenge – is to speak out and act in support of international justice.

It must extend to all armed conflicts where national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute those responsible the most serious crimes under international humanitarian or human rights standards.

I am aware of the controversies. I know, too, that some see justice as an obstacle to peace or humanitarian action.

In my view, it is neither. There can be no genuine peace without justice – and no justice without peace.

And having advanced the potential for international justice, we cannot let it fail.

Concessions that weaken international justice risk being seen as a license to continue killing with impunity.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, we don’t need to change the rules.

We do need to ensure they are enforced much more widely, robustly and fairly.

We must also fully support the humanitarian mission of the ICRC, as guardians of the Geneva Conventions.

By doing so, we will help to achieve the ambitions of the architects of these rules for decent behaviour even in times of war.

We owe it to the victims of conflict to pick up the challenge.


“The Geneva Conventions give force to a simple but enduring idea – that we must do everything we can to protect civilians and reduce suffering in war.”