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Now is not the time for complacency: The Geneva Conventions at 60

10 July 2009

A Red Cross vehicle is seen through a hole in a wallAlan Meier (ICRC)Leading government officials, academics, jurists and representatives of the Red Cross reiterated the vital role the Geneva Conventions play in protecting vulnerable people at a conference yesterday.

The conference, jointly organised by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the British Red Cross in honour of the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions, brought together some of the world’s experts on international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.

Together, they looked back over the history and development of international humanitarian law and explored the challenges the Geneva Conventions face today.


In particular, they focused on how warfare has changed since 1949 and whether the conventions still offer adequate protection to the world’s most vulnerable people.

Professor Sir Adam Roberts from Balliol College, Oxford, told attendees that there are far more civil wars today than international conflicts, and the Geneva Conventions provide less protection to those caught up in civil wars.

He also noted that some people have called for the conventions to be updated or for a new convention to be written. However, he warned against making the existing conventions seem less relevant and using this as an excuse for looking for loopholes in the law.

Other challenges mentioned were the rise in trans-national terrorism and the hotly debated issue of detainees. It was, however, noted that the need was not for new law but for better enforcement of existing law.

Alleviating human suffering

Representatives from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement described the many roles they have under the Geneva Conventions, both in war and in peace.

Simon Brooks from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) talked about the organisation’s visits to detainees. He said they visited half a million people last year, including in areas where there was either a non-international armed conflict or no conflict at all. In these situations, they had to negotiate access with officials, rather than relying on the rights granted under the Geneva Conventions.

Kevin Studds, acting head of the international tracing and message services at the British Red Cross, spoke movingly of the thousands of families who have been put back in touch with loved ones after losing contact during armed conflicts.

Charles Garraway, British Red Cross international law advisor, reminded attendees that the emblems – the red cross, red crescent and red crystal – need to be understood and respected at all times. They are vital to the protection of military medical personnel and staff of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Protection for civilians

The plight of civilians in today’s conflicts was at the forefront of discussions. To illustrate how much more dangerous warfare is for civilians today, British Red Cross chief executive Sir Nicholas Young recounted the story of the bloody Battle of Solferino, which was fought 150 years ago and sparked the idea for the creation of the Red Cross. “In that battle, 40,000 people died. Only one of them was a civilian,” he said.

Among the attendees, Clare Short MP asked how the UK government could help protect civilians in Palestine, while Professor Françoise Hampson of the University of Essex enquired about UK ratification of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.

Lord Malloch-Brown, Minister of State at the FCO, concluded the conference by urging people not to be complacent about the conventions. “While this is a remarkable 60th anniversary,” he said, “it’s also not a time for complacency.”  Referring to areas of conflict, the Minister noted that “it’s more dangerous to be a civilian today and to work under the red cross emblem. We’ve got to be in the business of promoting peace.”

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