You are here:
Protecting the civilian population in armed conflicts
Since the end of the Cold War warfare of the classic type pitting the regular armies of one or more states against each other has become a rarity. Internal armed conflicts which oppose regular armies to non state armed groups are now more common. In most of these conflicts there are no front lines and the distinction between civilians and combatants is often blurred.
As a result of this development the rules of conduct governing hostilities are increasingly being ignored. Serious violations of International Humanitarian Law, human rights and the rights of refugees are frequent. And most of the victims are civilians.
Although it is primarily the responsibility of the governments concerned to protect the civilian population, it often happens in times of conflict that they are either unable or unwilling to act on this responsibility. It is for this reason that the protection of civilians in armed conflicts is a subject of growing concern to the international community. The challenge is two-fold: to make both states and non state armed groups alike respect international law during such conflicts, and to address the needs of civilians caught up in the conflict with appropriate assistance.
The instruments of international law which provide a legal framework for the protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts notably include the following:
- International Humanitarian Law, and in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the two Additional Protocols of 1977 which establish basic rules of conduct during hostilities and the need for making a fundamental distinction between the civilian population and combatants. IHL offers protection to those not participating in the hostilities and to non combatants.
- The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 which provides those who flee to another country to escape conflict at home and the associated persecution with a legal status and a legal framework of protection
- Certain fundamental rights such as the right to life and the prohibition of torture apply in situations of conflict
- Specific plans of political action and legal norms developed to protect particularly vulnerable groups and notably women, children and internally displaced persons
- The International Criminal Court governed by the Rome Statute (1998) by means of which the international community is able to combat impunity, as the ICC has the power to initiate criminal proceedings against perpetrators of the most serious crimes, in particular war crimes and crimes against humanity
Recent practice and doctrine stress the complementary nature, and indeed the convergence of IHL, human rights and the rights of refugees as instruments for the protection of life and human dignity. Moreover, the fundamental principles of human rights and most of the provisions of IHL that protect civilians and govern the conduct of hostilities are now part of Customary International Law.
The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), which participates in the efforts of the international community, has adopted a strategy for the period of 2009-12 specifically to protect civilians in armed conflicts. It thus confirms Switzerland’s avowed intention of meeting the challenge of protecting civilians in armed conflicts. Another purpose of this strategy is to achieve greater effectiveness at the multilateral and bilateral levels and consolidate the Confederation’s position on this question in the international community, notably in the framework of the United Nations.
- In adopting this strategy the Confederation confirms respect for international law, its promotion and implementation as a pillar of Swiss foreign policy. In its dual role as the Depositary State and a High Contracting Party to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the Confederation takes advantage of the unique authority and legitimacy this confers to intervene at the bilateral and multilateral levels in efforts to ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law.
At the multilateral level the FDFA participates actively in the debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, taking a position on behalf of the Confederation as well as in the framework of particular groups of states. It makes a special effort to influence the debate in the Security Council. The FDFA also actively supports the Human Rights Council. At the European level it is active within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe. In so far as the regional organisations outside Europe are concerned the FDFA cooperates with the Organization of American States as well as the African Union and various sub-regional organisations.
At the bilateral level the FDFA participates in peace negotiation processes in several countries, in which questions concerning the humanitarian situation and protection are discussed. The FDFA also conducts bilateral programmes to promote peace and human rights in conflict and post-conflict situations. In the case of armed conflicts the FDFA maintains contact and takes steps to remind the different parties to a conflict of the need to observe the rules of International Humanitarian Law. It also undertakes and supports initiatives with regard to the protection of civilians.
- Humanitarian aid: as well as making financial contributions to the main international organisations with protection mandates (ICRC, UNHCR, UNICEF, OHCHR, etc.) and various aid organisations whose efforts may include protection, the FDFA seconds experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit and the Swiss Expert Pool for Civilian Peacebuilding (SEP).