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"We don’t have to change the law, we have to enforce it" - UN humanitarian chief

24 Jun 2019

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From the Central African Republic to South Sudan, and from Syria and Yemen to Afghanistan and beyond, warring parties have indiscriminately or deliberately attacked schools, hospitals and essential water infrastructure; used children as human shields; recruited children into armed groups and State forces; killed civilians with chemical weapons; raped and sexually exploited women and children. We must not accept this as the “new normal” of armed conflict. Photo: OCHA/G.Clarke

Today in Geneva, at an event focusing on collective commitment to international humanitarian law, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock talked about the challenges to international humanitarian law and ongoing efforts towards increased respect for the implementation of the existing law.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 are among the most important treaties enshrining the principle that wars have limits. At the heart of international humanitarian law, they bring protection to persons not or no longer participating in hostilities -- wounded and sick or shipwrecked combatants, prisoners of war, and civilians, with particular regard for women and children, civilians living under occupation, as well as internees. Moreover, article 3 common to the four Conventions governs the protection of persons in non-international armed conflict, thus binding organized armed groups as well as States. Today all four Geneva Conventions are universally ratified. While many characteristics of armed conflict have shifted since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949, these treaties remain as relevant and applicable as ever.

"The conventions came out of arguably the worst experience that humanity at scale had ever gone through in the form of WWII", UN humanitarian chief said at the event today. "In the light of such experience there was a desire to put in different arrangements for the future. But as time passes and generations change, it is really important to remind everybody why the Geneva Conventions were put in place".


“I am deeply concerned about the escalation of the fighting in Idlib”, the UN Secretary-General said last week. “The situation is especially dangerous given the involvement of an increased number of actors. Yet again, civilians are paying a horrific price. Let me underscore that even in the fight against terrorism, there needs to be full compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.” Photo: UNICEF/Syria 2019/Khalil Ashawi

"The conventions have three important attributes:

  1. All states are party to them. There is no state that says 'we don’t agree with this'
  2. The coverage is broad, so it includes wounded, sick, POWs, and civilians
  3. They aim to protect people not just in state-to-state conflict but also conflicts that are not international. They are intended to bind organised armed groups as well as armed states.

"We meet at a time when we the conventions face challenges. It is a jarring fact that after 60 years of broadly improving compliance with IHL, we have during the course of this decade seen a spike in violations. This is not because of weaknesses in the law, if anything the law has been strengthened with lots of additional agreements reached. But what we’ve seen is a decline in compliance.

How do we improve?

Mr. Lowcock outlined five actions that should be taken to reinforce the critical importance of complying with IHL:


Advocacy - call out violations or we will see more of them


Training and awareness - inform people especially under armed opposition groups who may not know what their obligations are


Deconfliction - we can do more to help people fulfill their obligations


Collect evidence - when there are violations, collecting evidence and investigating is critical, and it is often under-resourced


Sanctions - violations of IHL have to be punished.