While more countries – as well as American presidential candidates – seek stronger military action against Islamic State, one group is doing just the opposite. The International Committee of the Red Cross announced this week that it is trying to negotiate with the terrorist group for access to its vast territory in Syria and Iraq. As a neutral party representing humanitarian principles, the ICRC simply wants to aid the millions of civilians affected by the conflict and living under Islamic State rule.
The ICRC, which serves as guardian of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, hopes to persuade the jihadists that they should comply with the global norms of humanitarian law. That law calls for the prevention of unnecessary suffering in war, especially of civilians and prisoners of war. While Islamic State may be far from complying with that aspect, the Conventions also call for the protection of medical staff in risk zones on the principle that anyone injured in a conflict deserves health care.
The innocent, in other words, must be immune from the swords of hate.
The ICRC is all too aware that the nature of conflict has greatly changed since 1949. Drone strikes, suicide bombings, cyberattacks, the use of proxy fighters, and other methods of modern warfare are challenging rules written more than six decades ago in the wake of World War II. And violent jihadists seem to know no bounds of cruelty toward those who do not follow their ways.
Of equal concern is the fact that more states and nonstate actors are less willing to comply with humanitarian law. Or they have little knowledge of it.
“There is a glaring vacuum at the heart of the Geneva Conventions system,” says Valentin Zellweger, head of the Directorate of International Law at the Swiss Foreign Ministry.
By contacting Islamic State, the ICRC hopes to show that even the most heinous of terrorists must comply with the Conventions, which are rooted in the universal idea that war must have limits. As a party to a conflict, “even terrorists have obligations,” says Marco Sassòli, professor of international law at the University of Geneva.
Also this week, the ICRC brought together states that have ratified the Geneva Conventions to discuss a way to enforce them. One proposal: that countries self-report their compliance in order to learn from each other.
International laws that aim to protect civilians, prisoners, and the wounded remain a valuable collar on the spread of armed conflict. As Helen Durham, the ICRC’s director of international law and policy, explained in a recent speech, “[I]n the very worst of times, there is an area of law that seeks to create a space for humanity, a deep commitment to the idea that at the end of the day, what unites us is deeper and richer and far more profound than the things that try to divide us.”
If the ICRC persuades Islamic State to let in international aid workers, that could be a sign that the group is open to following humanitarian norms. Nations of the world can help this use of “soft power” by stepping up their compliance with the rules of war. War without limits would bring peace to no one.