8596th Security Council Meeting: Maintenance of International Peace and Security

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13-Aug-2019 02:02:27
Geneva conventions more crucial than ever, humanitarian experts stress, as Security Council marks seventieth anniversary of key instruments at 8596th meeting.

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In a global landscape marked by complex, asymmetrical conflicts — as well as the increasingly common use of autonomous weapons — the 1949 Geneva Conventions are more crucial than ever, prominent legal and humanitarian figures told the Security Council today, as members considered the relevance of international humanitarian law in a rapidly changing world.

Council members joined United Nations and other humanitarian experts in hailing the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions — the seventieth anniversary of which was observed on 11 August — as one of the international community’s most important accomplishments. Recalling that their broad ratification established baseline norms on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, as well as the shipwrecked, sick and wounded, several speakers pointed out that international law strikes a balance between military necessity and humanity in times of war.

Briefing by video-conference from Geneva at the meeting’s outset, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that in adopting the Geneva Conventions, countries made a critical declaration: “That even in armed conflict, even between fierce enemies, there must be limits on the suffering that we can inflict upon each other.” Today, international humanitarian law remains a key tool for dealing with contemporary conflict, he added. Noting that it can reduce the risk of physical and social damage to communities, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, spare civilians and prevent the collapse of entire towns, he nevertheless emphasized that — while universally ratified — the Geneva Conventions are not being universally respected.

The Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs recalled that the Council first invoked the Geneva Conventions in 1967 and has since made express and repeated reference to them. The results include such concrete actions as the establishment of international war crime tribunals, the deployment of commissions of inquiry, the imposition of sanctions and the mandating of peacekeeping operations to protect civilians. “The breadth of actions taken by the Security Council shows that the Council has great potential and flexibility for ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.”

Meanwhile, a strategic adviser from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights emphasized that the protracted nature of armed conflicts has long-term consequences that deeply affect the mental and physical health of civilians. Pointing out that the scope of the Geneva Conventions has evolved to include the behaviour of non-State actors — which feature in most of today’s armed conflicts — she expressed concern that the international community has neglected the manner in which non-State groups understand, value and implement such norms. Indeed, it is critical to consider non-State actors not only as perpetrators of violations, but as actors who can play a positive role in implementing international humanitarian law, she stressed.

As Council members took the floor, many speakers said the Geneva Conventions and their Optional Protocols have shaped the course of history. However, some echoed concerns that international humanitarian law is being ignored in many of today’s hotspots, even accusing some actors of building violations — including the starvation of civilians and attacks against hospitals — into their wartime strategies. Others suggested that the increasing depersonalization of conflict, including the use of drones and artificial intelligence, may require revisions to the current international legal framework.

Poland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, asking how it is possible that so many people continue to suffer the brutality of warfare, despite the universal ratification of the Geneva Conventions. Noting that much of today’s fighting takes place in densely populated urban areas, he said it often involves non-State armed groups and the targeting of “soft targets”, such as civilians. “This new reality of modern conflict, increasing role of non-State actors and legal loopholes […] hinders the application of international law in many ways,” he said, emphasizing that such shifts may require an examination of whether the existing rules are still sufficient.

France’s representative described intentional violations of the Geneva Conventions as unacceptable, even when undertaken as part of national counter-terrorism strategies. “You do not fire on an ambulance,” she stressed. France incorporates international humanitarian law in all its military operations from the earliest planning phases, she said. Joining other speakers in addressing the novel challenges posed by emerging technologies, she declared: “The rise of artificial intelligence should not move any of the red lines set out in international humanitarian law.” Instead, it should help parties better respect those rules in the conflicts of tomorrow.

China’s representative agreed that the development of cyber technology and artificial intelligence, as well as the frequency of international armed conflict, all pose new challenges. Urging the Council to tackle the underlying causes of conflict, he also called upon the international community to help States implement their international obligations and upon humanitarian agencies to engage in training and technical support — all with strict respect for the principle of national sovereignty.

Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said the crimes committed at the end of the Second World War led countries to adopt the Geneva Conventions as a cornerstone of international law. As for whether the Council is doing its job in defending their principles, he pointed out that its members convene repeatedly, even as people continue to die around the world. “We are failing the most vulnerable,” he stressed, urging Member States that may not agree on the political elements of crises to bridge their differences when lives are at stake. Calling for concrete action “today, not tomorrow”, he said the Geneva Conventions remain a sign of hope and their implementation a core duty for all nations.

Also speaking were representatives of the United Kingdom, South Africa (also on behalf of Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea), Kuwait, Dominican Republic, Belgium, United States, Russian Federation, Indonesia and Peru.

The meeting began at 10:06 a.m. and ended at 12:08 p.m.

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