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29 January 2009 - The savaging of humanitarian law - Article by M. Bernard Kouchner, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs

Published in the International Herald Tribune newspaper

(Paris, 29 January 2009)

"Modern" war disgusts us in the tragic consequences it has for civilians. How could we not be horrified at the sight of bodies, atrociously maimed or burned; the bodies of women, men and children lying in the smoking ruins of their homes, in hospitals unable to cope that have become simply places to die, absent sufficient drugs and equipment?

Unfortunately, such atrocities are to be seen in many places around the world, usually with relative indifference - the paradoxical outcome of the way in which the media have made violence an everyday event. Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Gaza: this depressing litany of conflicts with their multitude of innocent civilian victims swept away by the storms of war must not, however, leave us indifferent.

The international community - and in particular France and the European Union, for which human rights are a core value, the very foundation of their sense of identity - cannot stand silently by in the face of such a situation.

In a period of armed conflict there is in fact a body of rules and principles that all parties to the conflict must obey: international humanitarian law. That body of law, which has been largely built up since World War II, derives mainly from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols.

While the International Committee of the Red Cross is the statutory guardian of those standards, all states parties to the conventions must not only obey them but also ensure that they are obeyed by the parties in an armed conflict.

What that means is that the international community has a special responsibility in ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law. Indeed, one of the essential principles of international humanitarian law is that a distinction must be made at all times and in all circumstances between combatants and non-combatants, along with its corollary: a distinction between military targets and civilian targets, the latter to be protected. There are few conflicts in which that principle is fully respected.

In north-eastern Sri Lanka, 230,000 civilians have been caught up in the fighting. The Tamil Tigers are accused by all NGOs of refusing to allow civilians to flee the war zone.

During the Israeli offensive in Gaza, there were several strikes in areas apparently devoid of any identifiable military target, and in particular that of 27 December, which hit the Gaza Training College, and the series of bombardments on 6 January aimed at schools run by UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). Hamas also is responsible for violations of international humanitarian law, in part by firing rockets which were not aimed at military targets, but clearly intended to terrorize civilians in southern Israel.

Moreover, both Israel and Hamas have used weapons that have indiscriminate effects, since aerial bombing and mortar fire were not used in such a manner as to spare civilians. Yet the prohibition of the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects is another key principle of international humanitarian law.

The tragedy to which we have been witness in recent weeks is unfortunately not an isolated instance. Far too many armed conflicts ravage other parts of the world, from Sri Lanka to Darfur, from Somalia to Iraq, each with its funeral procession of massacred innocents. In each case the parties commit grave breaches of international humanitarian law, and in some cases mass atrocities punishable by international criminal justice.

Access is impeded to humanitarian aid and aid workers, plunging civilians into total destitution and depriving them of the most basic medical treatment. Children, some less than 10 years old, are enlisted as soldiers as well as sex slaves.

In various conflicts, rape is increasingly being used in a systematic, planned and large-scale manner; in short, it is used as a genuine weapon of war, whether in the Kivus or in Sudan, with almost total impunity. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a woman is raped every 30 minutes; 30,000 were raped in the Kivus in the first half of 2007. In the face of situations in which civilians are deliberately targeted, the maintenance and the restoration of peace are constant challenges. France is engaged in numerous peacekeeping operations under UN mandates. The purpose of several of them - first and foremost the European Union operation in eastern Chad and north-eastern Central African Republic - is to provide protection to innocent civilians. Such protection must involve first and foremost a guarantee of adherence to the principles of international humanitarian law in armed conflict and the inclusion of the issues surrounding the protection of civilians in mandates for peacekeeping operations.

I am convinced that compliance with international humanitarian law must be made the subject of depoliticized discussions at the United Nations, since such compliance is the duty of all, irrespective of the legitimacy of the military action undertaken by a specific state or armed group.

That is why I have asked France’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York to mobilize our partners on this matter. An initial meeting will be held in the coming days with a view to organizing a debate in the weeks to come.

What is at stake here is the credibility of the United Nations, and of the Security Council in particular, as the guardian of international peace and security./.

(Source of English text: International Herald Tribune.)

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