Earlier this month, I had to attend the 14th Bruges Colloquium organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the College of Europe. The theme of the discussion was a selection of issues relating to vulnerabilities in armed conflicts, an area which the Red Cross has made its focus. The colloquium examined aspects of the protection of particularly vulnerable persons in armed conflicts.
The programme included discussions on protections guaranteed under
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to persons in detention and medical
personnel. It also addressed the issue of sexual violence and the
recruitment and association of children with armed forces or armed
groups and cross-border humanitarian aid. Last year’s colloquium dealt
with the scope and application of the International Humanitarian Law as
such, and the year before the theme was legal framework relating to
international peacekeeping operations.
Speaker after speaker
spoke knowledgeably about this and that aspect of the Geneva Conventions
and its various protocols, and the other international conventions that
collectively constitute what specialists call the IHL aimed at
protecting people who are not participating in hostilities and
regulating the means and methods of warfare.
dozens of professors, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other specialists who
are professionally involved in the study or practice of international
humanitarian law. This contrasts sharply with the situation in this part
of the world. While there are some NGOs and individuals concerned about
human rights issues, there is hardly any body of knowledge and
specialisation that relates to international humanitarian law.
What was striking for me was the extent to which the subject had
developed depth in Europe. While Europe has certainly known terrible
wars, it was the erstwhile Yugoslavia’s civil wars that once again
focused on the European interest in this area. This led to the creation
of a UN sanctioned International Criminal Tribunal for former
Yugoslavia, which has tried and sentenced several people for grave
breaches of the Geneva Conventions, laws and customs of war, genocide
and crimes against humanity. This has also given impetus to the creation
of the International Criminal Court which India and China have declined
to join and which does not have UN sanction.
In essence, the
IHL comprises of the Geneva Conventions which comprise of four treaties
and three additional protocols that seek to ‘humanise’ war, a seeming
oxymoron, but an important one. The first three treaties of 1864, 1906,
1929 were given a realistic touch after the worst war the world has
known, World War II. The fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 defined the
war time rights of prisoners, both civilian and military, created
protocols for the protection of the wounded, and defined ways in which
non-combatants could be protected in a war zone. These conventions have
been accepted by almost all the countries of the world, though several
countries like India have avoided signing the additional protocols that
relate, for example, to non international armed conflicts, or the small
insurgencies that have afflicted us.
Grave breaches of the
IHL-which can range from willful killing, torture, inhumane treatment,
hostage taking, deportation, destruction of property unjustified by
military necessity-are what constitute war crimes. Over the years, these
have gained greater currency through the creation of the international
tribunal in The Hague which has sentenced a number of people for war
crimes in the Bosnian war, and more recently for some of Africa’s
At the colloquium, discussions also
focused on another feature of conflict-sexual violence — which is not
covered by conventional international laws.
was seen as a collateral damage of war and there was no perceived need
to address it as an issue if IHL. But the kind of violence that women
have endured in various vicious conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, Democratic
Republic of Congo, Libya and Syria have convinced people of the need to
develop the law in regard to sexual violence as well. Associated with
this is the issue of the right of women who have been impregnated by
rape to abortion.
There was a discussion as to what happens
when armed conflict takes place between non-international actors. By and
large, the Geneva Conventions apply to inter-state conflict and issues
like treatment of POWs, or civilians are taken up through this. But
when, say, the Sri Lankan armed forces fight the LTTE or India fights
one or the other insurgent group in the North East or the Maoists, there
is no real body of law dealing with the issue.
instead of promoting laws which outline the rights and protections of
people caught up in conflict involving the state and non-state actors,
the Indian debate has been about a law, the Armed Forces Special Powers
Act (AFSPA) which provides protection to the armed forces personnel
involved in such conflicts.
Now, there is no doubt that the
armed forces personnel need some form of indemnification for killing or
injuring non-combatants who get caught in the crossfire when the armed
forces are acting in good faith in a counter-insurgency campaign. But
equally, there is need for the state to outline a law that protects the
ordinary people from excesses that may be committed by errant members of
the same armed forces or non-state actors involved in the conflict.
Mid Day October 29, 2013