The signing of the first Geneva Convention, by Charles Edouard Armand-Dumaresq. (Wikipedia Commons.)

In a month where the horrific realities of armed conflict have dominated the news headlines, it is poignant to note that 150 years ago the international community first came together to develop rules to limit the barbarity of war.

The result of that August 1864 diplomatic conference, hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was the first Geneva Convention protecting the sick and wounded on the battlefield. Despite this agreement (and the host of international humanitarian law [IHL] treaties negotiated since then) we continue to witness blatant disregard for the laws of war. Today, more than ever, ICRC is calling for stricter compliance with IHL to preserve life and human dignity around the world.

As Australians this month recall the devastation of the First World War, dozens of countries remain in the theatre of armed conflict. Unlike the wars of recent centuries, however, these modern battles are not characterised by opposing state armies trading fire across the trenches. The majority of contemporary conflicts take the form of civil wars; and it is civilians, not combatants, who are the primary victims of violations of IHL. All too frequently civilians are deliberately targeted and terrorised, used as shields, or their means of survival — water, food and shelter — are destroyed. Women and girls, in particular, are the victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence, in some cases on a massive scale. Forced displacement is unsettling entire communities. In Iraq and Syria alone, we are seeing populations the size of Adelaide uprooted from their homelands, and facing the bleakest of futures in the extreme conditions of temporary desert camps. 

The international community has not sat back in the face of these changing realities. States and civil society have successfully negotiated a host of international agreements to protect the most vulnerable from the cruelty of war and ban indiscriminate weapons, from cluster munitions to anti-personnel landmines. As recently as June this year Australia ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, an historic agreement that has put in place global rules to better regulate the trade of conventional weapons, with the express purpose of reducing human suffering.

In spite of this progress, millions of civilians are bearing the brunt of the world's enduring wars.

It is not surprising, then, that we at the ICRC are often asked whether IHL remains relevant in an era of these violent confrontations, when atrocities are reported on an almost daily basis. While it is acknowledged that this body of law faces challenges, we are convinced it remains the best framework for regulating behaviour in war. It is the insufficient respect for applicable rules, rather than a lack of rules, that is the principal cause of suffering during armed conflicts. If IHL were better respected, there would be less death and destruction. At present, however, IHL lacks effective means of identifying, preventing and halting violations while they are occurring. The mechanisms within IHL that do exist are rarely, if ever, used. This impotence has often meant appalling devastation for those affected by war. And a right that is regularly violated without provoking any clear response is likely to lose its validity over time.

Underlying it all is our collective failure. Contracting States to the 1949 Geneva Conventions have undertaken to respect and to ensure respect for these treaties in all circumstances. Thus far, however, they have failed to give themselves the resources required to keep their promises.

In recognition of this, the ICRC, along with the Swiss Government, has been holding talks since 2012 with all states, including Australia, on the best way to improve compliance with IHL. Our work is based on a mandate given by the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. A variety of proposals have emerged from this initiative, such as the formation of a dedicated forum where states can decide jointly on the measures needed to bring better compliance with IHL. This could include regular and systematic discussions on how States Parties are meeting their obligations under the Conventions and addressing associated challenges.

The concept of rules regulating behaviour in conflict is not a new or Western notion. Throughout history and across cultural boundaries, from the tribal wars of the Pacific to the major interstate conflicts in Europe, combatants have created rules to regulate the conduct of hostilities. This universal principle that even wars have limits has seen every state in the world ratify the Geneva Conventions. It is now up to our generation to create a strong institutional framework to ensure that these rules are respected. If it is to be fully effective, the law needs suitable instruments. Today, a solution is within our grasp. It is up to us to seize this opportunity.