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European Union reaffirms support for Geneva Conventions

12 August 2009

A man wearing a red cross emblem trains soldiers in the laws of warBoris Heger/ICRCOn the 60th anniversary of the signing of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the European Union (EU) has reaffirmed its support for these treaties, while acknowledging that there are challenges to ensuring they are respected in conflict zones.

Sweden, holding the presidency of the EU, has issued a declaration on behalf of the member states, stating: "Despite the universal acceptance of the norms underlying these instruments, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of armed conflicts. The need to ensure respect for the law is more important than ever. This requires continuous efforts to mobilise political will, increase awareness of international humanitarian law, and ensure accountability for violations, in particular for acts that amount to war crimes."

Red Cross National Societies across the EU, including the British Red Cross, have welcomed the EU’s support. Michael Meyer, head of international law, said: “As auxiliaries to our public authorities in the humanitarian field, we confirm our commitment to co-operate with and assist those authorities in the promotion, dissemination and implementation of international humanitarian law.”

Spreading the message

Since 2005, the EU has had guidelines on tools its member states can use to help promote compliance with international humanitarian law in non-EU countries. These include dialogue with relevant authorities, making public statements, sanctions, and helping to provide training and education.

The British Red Cross has been at the forefront of ensuring the United Kingdom population knows about the laws of war. Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies around the world teach schoolchildren about the importance of the treaties.

As the guardians of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross assist in the training of training soldiers, militias and civilians in their responsibilities and rights under the conventions.

Still relevant today?

Sir Nicholas Young, British Red Cross chief executive, said: “This universally adopted body of law contains some of the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. But in these uncertain times, can rules drafted on the basis of the conflicts of yesteryear still be relevant?

“Clearly, no two conflicts are the same; they are driven and played out in very different ways. However, for those the Geneva Conventions seek to protect, there is a commonality: the persistent suffering of civilians caught up in conflicts and the urgent need for the protection and assistance of those not, or no longer fighting.

“From September, international humanitarian law will be on the secondary level curriculum in England and will feature in GCSE exams. Thousands of miles away, in a schoolroom in Uganda, Red Cross volunteers will be teaching these same messages. There, the children will be listening against the backdrop of a twenty-year bloody and brutal civil war, in which some of them may have themselves have been fighters.

“Across the world, and around the corner, we must continue to engage every new generation with the importance of international humanitarian law. It is crucial that no matter how far away emergencies and conflict may seem, by committing to and advocating for these principles, we can together spare civilians and other victims of war from needless suffering.”

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For teachers: Ten-minute briefing on the laws of war