UNITED NATIONS — Ambassadors and experts on Tuesday praised the international laws of war that for 70 years have banned attacks on civilians, schools and hospitals while acknowledging an uptick in egregious violations of the measures in high-tech modern warfare.
“We are failing the most vulnerable,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister for foreign affairs, at a meeting of the Security Council in Manhattan to mark the birth of the Geneva Conventions in 1949. “We are not living up to our legal and ethical obligations.”
The meeting, convened by Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, celebrated the four conventions that have been adopted over the last seven decades to form the body of international humanitarian law but noted that the spirit and letter of the laws are trampled on in modern times by both states and nonstate armed extremist groups.
Gross violations of human rights in conflicts across the globe where noncombatants and civilian infrastructure have come under attack by extremist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida — as well as the armed forces of countries where they operate — are evidence of wide-scale flouting of the Geneva Conventions, ambassadors said.
“This new reality of modem conflict, increasing role of nonstate actors, and legal loopholes of international humanitarian law hinders the application of international humanitarian law in many ways,” said Czaputowicz, whose country serves as president of the Security Council in August. “Finally, there is a problem of insufficient or even lack of accountability for violations of international humanitarian law. The lack of clear accountability mechanisms applicable to all without distinction precludes the imposition of punishment.”
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the four conventions protect wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, adding that the protections also apply to conflicts that involve nonstate armed groups.
“Dear colleagues, while the Geneva Conventions are universally ratified, it is clear by the obvious terrible suffering in today’s conflicts that they are not universally respected,” he said. “Too often ICRC sees the impact on people when IHL is violated — indiscriminate killing, torture, rape, cities destroyed, psychological trauma inflicted. But continued violations of the law do not mean the law is inadequate, but rather that efforts to ensure respect are inadequate. We can — and must — do more. You can do more.”
Jonathan Cohen, the acting US ambassador to the UN, said that the Geneva conventions are so respected that they have the world's gold standard for conflict.
"Much has changed in the past 70 years," he said. "New technologies have emerged, which allow for greater precision in many cases, but also more deadly force. The rise of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS has created new challenges as states work to defeat enemies who abide by no rules whatsoever. Today, the Geneva Conventions remain some of the very few universally-ratified international treaties. They are a powerful articulation of international humanitarian law and have become synonymous with ethical behavior in war."
South Africa’s UN ambassador, Jerry Matthews Matjila, delivered a statement on behalf of the three African countries sitting on the Security Council, which include Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea.
“Conflicts have evolved in recent years, and the new emerging nature of conflicts and the resurgence in violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, which compels people to seek refuge elsewhere is concerning,” he said. “We have witnessed an upsurge of violent extremism and terror attacks in which thousands of innocent civilians are being targeted by armed terrorist groups. In this new era of extremism, the historical respect of aid workers, medical personnel, schools and hospitals and other essential civilian facilities no longer stands.”
Karen Pierce, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the UN, singled out Syria as perhaps the world’s most prolific violator of the Geneva Conventions throughout an eight-year civil war that has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced millions of people internally and into neighboring countries.
“It is in Syria that the adherence by the parties to the conflict, to international humanitarian law, has reached a nadir," she said, accusing the country’s leaders of using weapons of mass destruction, arbitrary detention and starvation against its citizens and militant groups that have tried to overthrow President Bashar Assad. "And I take the opportunity to recall that commanders on the ground have individual, personal responsibility to uphold international humanitarian law. They will be held individually and personally accountable for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes. Justice may not come tomorrow, but it will come."