The first Geneva Convention of 1864 began a period in which the notion of independent parties, who would protect and support the victims of war, became increasingly accepted. Essential to this project was the idea that persons who did this work would be protected by all the belligerent parties. For their part, the independent Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), who provided this aid eschewed any commitment to the ‘cause’ of any belligerent party. The undertaking of the International Committee of the Red Cross (and the other humanitarian agencies who became involved) was to provide help to all parties in an even-handed way and, in the case of ICRC, remind them of their obligations under the (now) multiple conventions.
This commitment to restraint reached its zenith during World War Two, though even there, one has to except the eastern front of the European War and war in the Pacific. Partly, the decline from 1945 onwards has reflected the greater relative frequency of wars that involved non-state parties, who may not have seen themselves as bound, as are State signatories. Arguably they are wrong in this, since the five Geneva Conventions of 1949 have been ratified by every state on earth and, in doing this, they have bound their citizens.
Be this as it may, the trend to less and less observance of humanitarian restraint by non-state parties has paradoxically gone hand-in-hand with an increasing public insistence that humanitarian law be observed, and especially by state forces. This has produced a curious asymmetry in which apparent breaches of humanitarian law in (say) Afghanistan are treated very differently, depending on which party is thought to have been responsible. Apparent harm to ‘civilians’, caused by state forces, is assumed by a largely ignorant media to be a ‘war-crime’ even where there are grounds to think that the individuals concerned were ‘participating’ in some way in the conflict (making them combatants under Geneva Law), or where their harming may have been plausibly unintended or justified by military necessity (both defences in humanitarian law).
On the other hand, the persistent use of improvised explosive devices by al Qaeda/Taliban fighters is regularly reported but scarcely ever commented on, notwithstanding that IEDs are specifically condemned (Protocol II to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons), and, in Afghanistan, are the chief cause of violent death for both civilians and military personnel.
More generally, recent conflict in the Middle East (and elsewhere) has seen insurgent parties who not only reject humanitarian law but also the whole notion that those, who engage in humanitarian support for the victims of war, such as the Red Cross or Medicines Sans Frontière, should be protected in the work they do. Essentially, they see these NGO workers as adversary parties and they target them and their facilities as such. The consequence of this has been to completely expunge the ‘neutral space’, respected by all parties, in which humanitarian agencies might work, returning the world to the situation it was in before the first Geneva convention, one hundred and fifty years ago.
The response of some NGOs to this situation has been to hire their own security but this is a far from satisfactory solution. To begin with we might ask what is the status of the Private Military Companies (PMCs) who supply these security services, as far as international humanitarian law is concerned? As armed parties on the battlefield, it is plausible to see them as combatants. Certainly, in the context of potential adversaries who are viewing the NGO personnel themselves as targets, they will be seen as such. They are then either ‘third-parties’ on the battlefield, or they are aligned in some way with the regular forces of state parties. Either way there are problems. There is also the matter that, under international law, these PMCs are ‘mercenaries’ (unless enrolled in the armed forces of a party to the conflict).
In the eyes of some commentators, the institution of a neutral space, within which NGOs might engage in humanitarian work, is also threatened by the increasing tendency of military forces to engage in such activity themselves. Not only has the doctrine of ‘hearts and minds’ seemed so very persuasive since, at least, Vietnam but ‘peaceful’ activities, such as disaster relief and ‘provincial reconstruction’ have seemed much more attractive work to civilian populations, in whose name they serve, than the ‘nasty business’ of killing people and have consequently been more appealing to populist politicians.
But the fact remains that much of this humanitarian work does come with an ‘agenda’, which may be obnoxious to adversary parties. It is evident that many of the conflicts of present concern have significant cultural content and that humanitarian participation in conflict zones cannot help but reflect these differences. It may thus be worth restricting NGO involvement in war zones to the Red Cross/Red Crescent organisation, focussed on its original independent role of offering help to the immediate victims of armed conflict, and leaving the wider social reconstruction work to organisations supported and defended by the respective adversary parties.
This, of course, leaves the enormous problem of the non-compliance with humanitarian law of non-state parties and the perverse perception that it is state parties who are most responsible for atrocities in these irregular conflicts; the subject of a later blog.