New ways to protect the innocent in war

As the nature of war changes, the International Committee of the Red Cross is struggling to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principles of the Geneva Conventions. Even the most extreme militants must be convinced of the need to protect civilians.

In Yemen's capital Sanaa, Peter Maurer (R), president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, tours a site which the Houthi-led authorities say was hit by a Saudi-led air strike Aug. 9. The Saudi-led coalition denies that an air-strike last month destroyed four houses at the site.

In the fog of war, one group usually comes equipped with fog lights. It is the International Committee of the Red Cross, the guardian of the humanitarian principles known as the Geneva Conventions that allow the giving of aid to the wounded and, one hopes, compel the parties in a war to protect civilians and prisoners.

With terrorists and militant groups popping up in many countries, however, the Red Cross is finding it more difficult to convince combatants to abide by these principles. In a recent speech, Peter Maurer, president of the Red Cross, called for a “new global social contract” to help limit the effects of war.

“It is obvious that there is a growing lack of consensus on the meaning and implementation of humanitarian principles, as the number of actors, the range of their visions, and the extent of crises in which they are involved, continue to increase,” he said.

To help solve this problem, the Red Cross is trying to train nonstate militias on ways they can prevent civilian casualties. Since 2014, for example, it has held workshops with the armed wing of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Reporters from The New York Times were recently able to attend one of these sessions, which relied on role-playing and discussion of case studies. The Red Cross has also worked with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Violent extremism in Syria, Ukraine, and parts of Africa are also challenging the implementation of the Geneva Conventions. In the past century, as war technologies have improved and more terrorists target urban areas, the proportion of civilian deaths in conflicts has risen steadily. Fewer conflicts are between states and instead are between militant groups. The Red Cross has long relied on established government – what it calls “appropriate institutional anchorage” – to implement the Conventions.

In 2012, the Red Cross and the Swiss government began a series of international meetings to find a consensus on solving this problem of compliance. They hope to reach some conclusions by next year.

“To build a common effort, we must agree on common starting points: War has limits. War has to have limits. Wars without limits are wars without end. Limiting wars is an intrinsic test of our civilization, and probably of all civilized worlds,” says Mr. Maurer.

The principle of protecting the innocent in war needs the attention of everyone, not only the 140 countries involved in the current Red Cross-sponsored conference. The nature of conflict may change but certain universals do not.

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