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Panel Discussions - Thursday, September 24, 2009

“We are witnessing... erosion of the protection of civilians”

How to reclaim the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law was the subject of the second annual Trygve Lie Symposium co-hosted by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry and IPI.

The chairman of the high-level September 24, 2009 meeting at IPI was Jonas Gahr Støre, the Foreign Minister of Norway, and in opening the discussion, he described  the challenge in stark terms.

“In too many conflicts,” he said, “we are witnessing actual erosion of the protection of civilians. We are witnessing a widening of the definition of ‘legitimate targets’ and a too-liberal interpretation  of the rule of proportionality. We are witnessing deliberate attacks against civilians, including the use of sexual violence and armed non-state actors using methods of warfare that run counter to IHL [international humanitarian law].”

“These developments are unacceptable,” he asserted, ”and they are a common concern for us all.”

Terje Rød-Larsen, the President of IPI, made welcoming remarks to the meeting, which was held under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution.

Those participating included:
Bernard Kouchner, Foreign Minister of France
Hassan Wirajuda, Foreign Minister of Indonesia
Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator  
Eric P. Schwartz, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration

Following are the opening remarks of Mr. Støre:

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to welcome you to this year’s Trygve Lie Symposium, which will focus on reclaiming the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.

The face of war has changed over the past decades. Increasingly, civilians are caught in the midst of armed conflicts, at the centre of targeted attacks.

According to bodies such as Human Rights Watch, up to 90 per cent of casualties in modern warfare are civilians. They are killed, maimed, raped and abused. The protection of civilians is weakened, and international humanitarian law is being undermined.

International humanitarian law regulating war and conflict was founded on lessons learned from inter-state wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, conflicts and wars are seldom fought on the classic battlefield, but mainly take place in the civilian sphere.

No one will disagree on the obligation to respect international humanitarian law. And no one will argue that civilians are not entitled to protection in armed conflicts. Nevertheless, the reality differs starkly from the established regulations.

In too many conflicts, we are witnessing actual erosion of the protection of civilians. We are witnessing a widening of the definition of “legitimate targets” and a too-liberal interpretation of the rule of proportionality. We are witnessing deliberate attacks against civilians, including the use of sexual violence, and armed non-state actors using methods of warfare that run counter to IHL. These developments are unacceptable, and they are a common concern for us all.

The challenge is not to redraft IHL [International Humanitarian Law]. We have the legal tools – but they must not be left unused in the toolbox. Although there are real challenges, they do not legitimize the undermining of IHL. They do not legitimize the failure to protect civilians in armed conflict.

One of the urgent challenges we must address is how to apply international norms in a new context. We need a broad discussion on how IHL should be interpreted and implemented in the context of modern armed conflicts so that adequate protection for civilians is ensured. We also need to ensure that those responsible for violations of IHL are held accountable and perpetrators stigmatized.

The success and credibility of international norms will be measured by the impact they have on the ground. Our main focus must be on the situation for civilians, and on measures that will effectively strengthen their protection.

This Symposium is of course too short to go into these issues in depth. But I hope we can agree on strengthening our common commitment to reclaim the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.

I would like to propose that we consider conducting a series of field studies, both on how IHL is in fact applied on the ground, and on the humanitarian and developmental consequences. Important lessons should be learned from the ICRC’s experience in the field, and from states that have made their rules of engagement available to the public. Contributions from other field experts, including from the UN and civil society would also be essential. Lessons learned from such field studies could constitute the basis for further analysis and consideration of new initiatives.

The field studies could be followed up with a series of regional meetings. Such a process could also provide valuable input to the commendable work that is being done on this issue in the Security Council.  As a start, it could be beneficial to organise an international meeting to discuss how such a process could be organised – to support the efforts being made elsewhere in the UN system, not replace them. If participants so wish, I would be willing to facilitate such a meeting in Oslo.


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