Practising Humanity Amidst Changing Nature of Armed Conflict

Published on 4th June 2019

We are all thinking about the practice of humanity amidst the changing nature of armed conflict today. And we do so in 2019 – the 70th Anniversary year of the Four Geneva Conventions agreed by States in 1949.

Only 60 States were in existence in 1949 – the high watermark of European, Soviet and American imperialism. But all 193 States have since signed and ratified the GCs and they are the most widely accepted and universally applicable treaty in international relations today. This year we celebrate them as a great moral, legal and political achievement of our human species. Our violence as a species continues to mark us and poses deep problems of destruction and pain, and it looks set to do so for the foreseeable future. The Geneva Conventions place deep value on restraint and set important limits to our violence. They are, therefore, a threefold achievement: as a moral statement; as international law, and as diplomacy - a high point in the humanitarian multilateralism which has a long and honourable tradition across all cultures and civilizations.

We need humanitarian multilateralism urgently today as geopolitics leans towards great power contest and competition once again and as new technology sees us on the cusp of a paradigm shift in new weapons and non-human combatants – a new arms race.

But...the Geneva Conventions are ink and paper. And rather a lot of both! How should they be put into practice – in a time of changing conflict? How can we practise their humanity in war today?

I will do three things: Examine what humanity looks like in the Geneva Conventions; Look at 7 major shifts and how they affect the practice of humanity; and Think about how warriors and politicians can make a virtue of humanity.

What Humanity looks like in the Geneva Conventions?

The four conventions of 1949 set out elaborate patterns of restraint and humane treatment for four main groups: Wounded and sick; Shipwrecked and those hors de combat; Prisoners of War; and Civilians.

These groups and sub-groups within them – like children, women, journalists, medical and religious personnel are recognized as "protected persons". Also protected are certain "relationships" and certain "objects" without which it is difficult for a human being to be fully human. Protected relationships are those that are most intimate to us – our family - the people who we love who give us that vital sense of our humanity as "being with others" in this world and not just being alone. Protected objects are those which are essential to our "means of survival" - like water, food, fields, businesses, workplaces and medicines. Also protected are objects essential to human meaning – religious objects like Qurans and Eucharistic wine, temples and cultural property.

To be alive is a matter of biology but to live a life of dignity – one that is truly human – requires relationships, the means of survival and spiritual resources. The Geneva Conventions, therefore, define humanity as physical, emotional and spiritual.

In this they are surely right. They say that human life and human dignity are precious and protected. More than this – and in a way which is so important to all of us who live in a time of climate crisis – the GCs also recognize that we need our environment in order to be human and so insist on environmental protection too.

Ahead of their time, the GCs gave the environment legal personality as worthy of protection in itself and because we need it as "our environment" to survive and thrive as humans – it is the mother from which humanity is born and on which we depend to live and breathe.

The GCs are concerned with actions towards all persons and objects – the things that parties to conflict and their warriors should do and not do in war to protect persons and objects. There are, therefore, clear rules about sexual violence, pillage, torture, inhuman treatment, restoring family links, cultural property and environmental damage. All this together makes the GC texts a surprising mixture of law book, military manual, social work and administrative guidance. At the heart of the the GCs – and elaborated later in the APs – are five important action-guiding humanitarian principles for warriors and their politicians which must guide the way they fight – the "conduct of hostilities."

• Distinction – the obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians in attack and defence.

• Precaution – the obligation to take precautions that protect civilians, civilian objects and the environment as you plan and implement military operations.

• Proportionality – the obligation to attack or defend in proportion to the threat posed against you and so use reasonable force that does not impose unnecessary suffering superfluous injury.

• Provision of relief – the obligation to provide or facilitate the provision of impartial relief to the wounded, sick, civilians and detainees.

• Humane treatment – the obligation to treat all people in your care humanely.

So, here is what humanity looks like in the GCs which set out what is important to human beings in extremis and which, if neglected, create unacceptable conditions of inhumanity. This is the humanity of the GCs – that all parties to conflict should recognize and respect what is essential to human beings and then do everything in their power to reduce human suffering and increase the conditions for all people in their power to live a dignified existence – even in war.

Changes in Conflict and what they mean for the practice of humanity

So what does this mean in our wars today? What is changing in armed conflict that needs special attention? I will now talk about 7 things happening in war today which demand specific new practices from the ICRC.

Political change – important political changes are demanding a shift in the ICRC's diplomatic practice. Multipolar politics now dominates global diplomacy. The decolonization and liberation of the 1950s onwards has seen more than a hundred new States take their rightful place in international relations. Some of these States are now major powers and many are middle powers or small States with full-spectrum foreign policy perspectives and significant diplomatic capacity. All these states are now important to know for the ICRC and our diplomatic expansion in recent years is a response to the increasing diplomatic significance of Asian, Pacific and African States which can be important partners to us in humanitarian diplomacy – around specific conflicts or on global policy development. In today's multipolar world, States do not simply "fall in line" as easily "like-minded" behind large patron States but often have distinct and nuanced views on global issues which the ICRC needs to know and understand.

The global shift from a period of liberal hegemony towards a new wave of conservatism is another political change and is creating a rise of so-called "illiberal democracies" and "authoritarian governments." This shift from liberalism to conservatism requires the ICRC to recover a deep understanding of conservative values and to appreciate where conservative and nationalist ethics find common ground with humanitarian values and the Geneva Conventions.

The ICRC always needs to develop a meaningful humanitarian dialogue with new political movements of all kinds as they arise and engage in armed conflict. Our sustained dialogue with radically conservative Islamist and Buddhist politics in recent years is an example. We now need to be sure that our humanitarian dialogue and diplomacy is actively engaging and listening to conservative and nationalist political opinion as it takes a greater place in politics on all continents. This means ensuring that we have a genuine humanitarian contract with conservatism of the same authenticity that we achieved with liberal democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Great power changes are also significant. The shift from cooperation to competition and (unarmed) conflict of various kinds between the world's great powers is increasingly referred to as "near peer" contests.

This political shift and its long range risk of global conflict - requires the ICRC to have especially close relations with all great powers – their political and military establishments and their humanitarian auxiliaries – Red Cross, civil defence and emergency management departments.

Coalition of warfare is the second major change in conflict today. The rise in diverse and complicated partnered operations between allied States and multiple armed groups is a consistent feature of war today in the Middle East, in north and west Africa and parts of Asia. Here we have responded with a major diplomatic initiative and intricate protection dialogue within coalitions to ensure that all parties in a coalition are respecting IHL and encouraging and enabling their partners to respect IHL. This is best done by cross-coalition efforts that prioritize common military policy, joint planning, training and equipping that ensures that all parts of a coalition are respecting IHL in equal measure. Here we need Australian support whenever your military forces are part of a coalition.

Urban warfare – is the third characteristic of contemporary war that requires new policy and practice to ensure persistence of humanity and respect of IHL.

The ICRC is especially concerned about two features of urban warfare: the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact in urban areas; and the persistent attacks against healthcare facilities, staff and patients in urban warfare today. The ICRC calls on all parties to conflict to carefully review their policy for using widely explosive weapons in densely populated areas, which can so easily harm civilians beyond the immediate target and coincidentally damage infrastructure and services on which the civilian population depends.

The ICRC also continues to call for an absolute halt to attacks against healthcare – which is a flagrant violation of the first Geneva Convention. We helped to focus UN Security Council attention on this pressing issue in 2016 via their resolution 2286, and are now working on the ground with States and armed groups to improve policy and practice and reduce these violations. On both these humanitarian challenges – explosive weapons in urban areas and attacks against healthcare – we need Australian humanitarian influence close to the ground whenever possible.

New Weapons shaped by new levels of digitalization, autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence – are the newest humanitarian challenge today and the hardest to predict and anticipate because so much of their technology is unprecedented and speculative. Here the challenge for the ICRC is largely one of expertise and ethics: we are dramatically improving our understanding of new technology and are also thinking hard with others about the ethical issues arising in the use of new weapons – key questions of human control and the new "baked - in" risks and opportunities of high tech weapons and AI.

The application of the law to all new weapons will remain consistent. Any new weapon must still be designed with the ability to comply with IHL – as per Article 36 of AP1 –and its actual use must comply with IHL.

But what does this mean for AI? Will humans always be "in the loop" to retain command and control of new weapons? Will AI technology remain a weapon in the strict sense or become a deep learning non-human combatant with ethical expertise and responsibility of its own? Paradigm shifting machine human interactions (MHI) in war tomorrow is a major strategic challenge to the ICRC and to weapons diplomacy and policymaking. It is clear to us that the technology of new weapons development is moving extremely fast at a time when multilateral weapons diplomacy is moving extremely slowly. Alarmingly but not surprisingly, the hot new arms race is accompanied by a negotiations freeze as several states want to get ahead before negotiating.

Protracted conflicts and the fragility challenge – not unusually today, wars are lasting for decades. Violence and conflict ebbs and flows across a country but infrastructure and services remain constantly damaged and chronically under maintained - with health facilities, water supply and sewerage systems, schools and businesses dilapidated, under-resourced and "fragile" in the euphemism of global policy.

Millions of people live displaced and dispersed across run-down urban areas or are gathered hurriedly together in large temporary spaces that are the result of sudden "humanitarian urbanization" in emergency human settlements. These situations last for years and simultaneously give rise to short and long-term humanitarian needs. This protraction of need has seen the ICRC practice develop a clear combination of urgent relief and much longer term humanitarian investments. In one place we need to truck clean water and food. In another place, we need to repair electricity sub-stations, high voltage power lines, or maintain massive water purification plants and miles of complicated urban water pipes. We are repairing schools, upgrading prisons and hospitals, and paying for health staff and water authority engineers.

This looks to many like development work in war but, in fact, it is the maintenance of vital infrastructure and services for humanitarian purposes so that people's means of survival are protected in line with the Geneva Conventions. We sometimes call this work "development holds" because we are struggling to maintain development-funded systems and avoid major development reversals in societies at war.

The World Bank and other IFIs are now partnering with us – funding our humanitarian work in "fragile and conflict affected areas" where they cannot operate themselves but where they see the risk of millions of people being "left behind" if humanitarian work by ICRC and other humanitarian actors is not given more support.

Climate crisis and armed conflict is the sixth big change we are noticing in conflict today which is changing our ICRC practice of humanity. In Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Philippines, millions of people are living the "double vulnerability" of conflict and climate shocks. Families and communities who might be able to cope with the damage, lost assets and missed opportunities of one or other – a conflict or a climate shock – are often pushed beyond coping when conflict and climate hit at once or in rapid succession.

The ICRC is trying to keep up with the challenge faced by these communities. We are finding it is not enough to do what we always do – support with food, health and asset replacement – because their living conditions are chronically deteriorating and their livelihoods no longer fit their environment. People are being pushed beyond resourcefulness and to the very limits of adaptation in many areas where compounded climate crisis and armed conflict dominate their environments.

This year we are trying to understand the double vulnerability of climate and conflict better. Already, we are realizing that our humanitarian practice needs to "adapt to adaptation". We cannot just give people things that restore their former lives. We have to work with them to support their efforts at climate mitigation and climate adaptation. Humanitarian assistance in armed conflict is learning fast from humanitarian and development work in disaster risk reduction, and here the Australian Red Cross and many Asian States are leading experts.

People's participation and the shift in humanitarian agency is the seventh of the big changes the ICRC sees emerging in humanitarian practice in war today. Organized western humanitarian action has deeply colonial traits from the period when it followed imperial power to work beyond Europe and north America. In these colonial and post-colonial moments of the twentieth century, western humanitarian agencies leveraged their imperial associations and technological superiority through their finance, flags and insignia, and with their white Toyotas and white faces. In much of this, the western humanitarian imagination has been too dominated by a simple subject-verb syntax: "we help you."

But today the tide is finally turning and people affected by armed conflict want to play the lead role in the practice of humanity espoused in their name. Today people and organizations in conflict areas and in western organizations want to change the humanitarian grammar so that people are subjects not objects of humanitarian action, and international organizations play a more prepositional role: "we survive with help from others". The pressure to localize humanitarian action is a good one and is championed by the Australian Red Cross. "Localization" is more than direct money transfers to local organizations. It is about a real power shift and honing the skills of north-south partnership and south-south partnership.

Effective partnerships involve a genuine power shift and they are not cheap to achieve. Getting good at partnership requires investments in the authentic organizational development of local and national organizations, and restructuring, reskilling and new attitudes in western organizations.

Making a virtue of humanity in politicians and military professionals

Finally, I want to talk about embedding humanity in the hearts and minds of warriors and politicians. The Geneva Conventions recognize a State's right to win in war. The principle of "military necessity" runs alongside the principle of humanity throughout the GCs and the APs to guarantee that victory has value alongside compassion. But how can individuals maintain this balance in practice?

Australia has a good record on rising to the challenge of holding both values in place in its recent military engagements, and much of its success turns on the determined cultivation of operational virtues and ethical culture in its armed forces. The practice of balancing humanity and winning is not a science. The principle-based nature of a great part of the GCs means the politician and the commander must operate in the realm of judgement much more than simple formula and precise calculation.

What is proportionality? What is military necessity? What is superfluous suffering? What is brave and what is reckless? Virtue and character are the best generators of judgement.

Humanity needs to be imbibed and believed as a virtue in war if the Geneva Conventions are truly and consistently to be turned from ink and paper into actual policy and practice.

This battlefield virtue is a painful one which has always to operate with the difficulty of ambivalence because it must be based in a deep double conviction that humanity is right and winning is right, and the knowledge that they will not completely overlap. Sometimes it will be infuriating that you could not strike a dangerous enemy because too many civilians would have been hurt in the process. Sometimes it is painful that you had to strike and many civilians were hurt in the process.

In Australia, as in all States, politicians and military personnel are asked to make difficult decisions in war and it is essential that military culture is shaped in such a way that it develops the virtue of humanity as part of warfighting. In this, Australian military training and reflection is some of the best in the world and has informed and improved the ICRC's own understanding of how to develop the virtue of humanity in military forces.

In May 2019, ICRC Head of Policy

Dr Hugo Slim

Head of Policy, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Courtesy: ICRC 


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