International humanitarian law (IHL) seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict on humanitarian grounds. Its main sources are the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols as well as customary international law. Although the nature of armed conflict has evolved, IHL remains an appropriate and relevant framework for regulating the conduct of war and ensuring protection for all those who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities. For example, IHL prohibits the mistreatment of prisoners of war and attacks on civilians and contains rules on humanitarian access. The main problem in contemporary conflicts is not the lack of norms but rather the widespread breaches of the rules that exist.
Since 2012, Switzerland and the ICRC, based on a resolution of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, have been conducting intensive consultations with states and other interested actors to find ways and means to strengthen compliance with IHL. In all, four meetings of states on strengthening compliance with IHL have been held.
In the course of the consultations, the states have acknowledged that the existing IHL compliance mechanisms are largely inadequate. It has also been established that there is an institutional vacuum in the area of IHL implementation. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 are an exception among multilateral treaties in that they do not establish a regular conference of states parties or another similar type of institutional forum in which states can discuss the application of IHL and current challenges to compliance with it. To address these shortcomings, Switzerland and the ICRC have, over the past three years, led consultations on a number of proposals aimed at strengthening compliance with the existing rules.
During the consultations, a majority of states have said that they are in favour of establishing a regular conference of states for IHL. This would provide a forum for more intensive discussions on current challenges and on possible measures to address them, thereby enhancing overall dialogue and cooperation on issues such as the strengthening of state capacities in the implementation of IHL obligations. These states believe that a new mechanism would be an important step in strengthening protection for victims of armed conflicts.
Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter and the president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, today opened the fourth and final meeting of states on strengthening compliance with IHL. Mr Burkhalter recalled that the states, just four years after the Second World War, adopted the 1949 Geneva Conventions to strengthen the protection of civilians, prisoners of war and war-wounded. Today, he said, we must preserve that legacy by ensuring that states acquire more effective means to improve respect for these rules. This was not just a matter of respecting legal obligations but also served the higher interest of a more peaceful, stable and humane world.
The fourth meeting of states marks the end of the consultation process. Switzerland and the ICRC will then present a final report to the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in December 2015, setting out concrete recommendations for strengthening compliance with IHL. They are committed to the establishment of a regular conference of states on IHL, on the basis of the report.
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