Adapting IHL to new challenges or just “dead letter”



Current crises and an uncertain future are making of the effective implementation of International Humanitarian Law a real challenge and in some case a truly impossible goal. This state of stagnation is claiming for a way out in which adaptation at local level, reshape at institutional level and stability at global level, are the main pillars for getting tangible solutions. If there is not a global and local swift to new forms of delivering and implementing IHL it´d become obsolete.

However, Russia and US indiscriminate and arbitrary airstrikes in Syria towards civilian´s population shows that IHL is more a matter of diplomatic strength rather than direct implementation. If there were an effective diplomacy system we could definitely say that anyone could stop Aleppo to be destroyed just to mention Geneva Conventions. Anyone could stop the use of chemical weapons just to mention Chemical Weapons Convention. In addition to human rights agreements and many others that from decades has marked a global goal of peace enforced by United Nations. However it has a total inoperative role.

Is it all about politics and leadership? Maybe…. which is clear is that a strong leadership and solid institutions build a resilient political system that become truly influencer during violent conflicts. But how did we get to this situation in which law may become obsolete?

The violation of international agreements of any kind (e.g. Paris agreement for climate change) is becoming an “unhealthy” tradition that boost isolationism also for humanitarian issues. However, humanitarian joint action comes before globalization and if it’s able to make a positive impact is precisely because of its global character.

Recently Peter Maurer* stressed the fact that “humanitarian aid was a short-term relief effort but is increasingly a longer-term in armed conflicts” which I understand as a tacit acceptation that the entire humanitarian sector need to be reformed by being total inserted within the public and private sector.

The strategy from the humanitarian sector of “being connected” with global organizations or the private sector is not enough and results in an anarchic state with no tangible results.

The humanitarian sector is adrift, sailing in a chaotic global structure with no leadership to be an influencer within the public sector and/or a disrupted relationship with the private sector.

A new ICRC report reveals that five times more civilians die in offensives carried out in cities than in other battles.* Between 2010 and 2015 70% of all civilians died in Syria and Iraq, which means a flagrant violation of Geneva conventions.

Is for all this devastating facts that for enforcing IHL we need to make more efforts and distribute resources of all kinds in a different perspective. The shocking numbers of death because of a direct consequence of a no implementation of IHL goes further than just “deaths because of war”, it represents the total inoperative of the system. IHL is not being implemented and is not a tool for protection to civilians anymore. Although, instead of thinking as “dead letter” we need to transform it in an active agent by the reform of the humanitarian sector and its role within the global institutions.

Diplomacy is the art that is missing* –once again- and the only real influencer in this stage of chaos generated by mistaken foreign affairs policies and military intervention without clear humanitarian purposes.

Fighting against a dictatorship as in Syria, could it really be considered a “terrorist” battle? The intervention of Russia backing Al Assad could it be considered for “humanitarian purposes” when thousands of civilians have died? In addition, the intervention of US –another of many airstrikes with “humanitarian purposes”- that also killed civilians could it be considered within the legal framework of the international humanitarian law?

 In current situation of in-depth instability IHL is almost “dead letter” and has lost all its power to be implemented. All the work of education and promotion around IHL in which 90% of the International Committee of Red Cross budget comes from the States is becoming useless, at least for the Middle East conflict. In the context of a global institutional crisis and the recent lost of leadership from US is not possible to pretend that IHL could remain under the same standards or codes of implementation.

There is a big difference: awareness and respect to IHL from civilians and from the political class.

A strong work from Diplomacy is needed and ought to be a process leading by global leaders in a struggle to eradicate attacks to civilians and cities. This is a must for really getting to a world with minimum standards of instability.

Under this chaos it is not enough the efforts made by CIRC and the rest of humanitarian organizations in the field. Is good initiative to be in contact with local focal points but is not enough and it´s clearly not delivering enough results for avoiding deaths and millions of displaced people. Is it not only about preventing conflicts but directly to stop masses of refugees and destruction of urban cities.

United Nations is the global organization that should be in charge of supervising this process of peacekeeping, however a powerful authority axis is ruling the world and makes the system complete useless.

Although ineffective, the Security Council holds the power to change this situation and put pressure on governments to really achieve results.

Current ineffectiveness results in a never-ending conflict but also to its growing escalation because of a lack of global leadership. US has lost –voluntary- its role and now the community is having spontaneous leaders without the support of global institutions. Its not enough.

We need to reform the humanitarian sector, inserted as a pillar at public and private sector with diplomacy, stable global institutions, innovative leadership and a stronger and better education around IHL.

We cannot change the existence of wars but we could change its rules.






 *Paper-cut-sculpture: Peter Callesen


*Peter Maurer: War in cities:

*Diplomacy:the art that is intentionally missing*




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