Home > Archives > 06 - 2005 > Cities bombed
from issue no. 06 - 2005

Why civilians are increasingly the victims of war

Cities bombed

The Geneva Convention of 1949, the basis of human rights, prohibits the bombing of civilian targets. But today it is systematically disregarded. Does the Treaty signed by almost two hundred nations still have any value? And how can it be re-suscitated? Interview with Gianluigi Rossi, Professor of International Treaties and Politics.

by Pierluca Azzaro and Davide Malacaria

Here above, the city of Fajullah in Iraq hit by heavy bombings in November 2004

Here above, the city of Fajullah in Iraq hit by heavy bombings in November 2004

Civilians must be protected in the course of conflicts, as also must the sick and wounded; inhuman or humiliating treatment must not be inflicted on prisoners of war. Reread now, the Geneva Convention seems to belong to a past civilization now lost, buried under the ruins of Falluja, where civilian housing was bombed for months, or forever shut up in the secrets of Guantanamo. And yet that charter still exists, but does it still have a value? Is it possible to re-suscitate it? And in what terms? We consulted Gianluigi Rossi, Professor of the History of Treaties and International Policy and lecturer in the History and Institutions of Afro-Asian Countries in the Faculty of Political Science at the “La Sapienza” University of Rome, as well as vice-president of the Italian Institute for Africa and the East (ISIAO). Editor of the magazine Africa, Rossi is concerned with the system for the protection of human rights in Africa with particular reference to the role of the African Union.

The first thing that leaps to the eye from the Convention is the historical moment in which it was signed. It was at the start of the Cold War, and yet many countries, despite the ideological blocs, commited themselves without reserve to safeguarding defenseless populations involved in conflicts. What was the key to this great success of international politics?
GIANLUIGI ROSSI: One needs in fact to point out that when the Geneva Convention, signed in 1949 by almost two hundred countries, is talked about, reference is being made to four distinct conventions aimed at protecting in times of war the injured, the sick, prisoners of war and civilians. Rather than a starting point what happened in that year was the termination of a course begun in 1864, when the first convention on war-wounded was signed, also in Geneva. An initiative that derived from the efforts of Henri Dunant, shocked by what he had seen during the battle of Solferino. The Convention signed in 1949 does, however, undoubtedly represent a qualitative leap in respect to what existed previously: one can say that that Convention is the basis and foundation of humanitarian rights. I think it’s impossible to imagine the success of such an initiative without taking into account that a devastating conflict had just ended, in which civilian populations were involved in the same manner as the military. The international community was still shaken by a species of conflict unknown in history and that brought out the widely shared concern and need to put a stop to the slaughter of civilians in situations of conflict.
The stringency of language of the document is also striking: no distinction is made, for example, between war and war: the issue is “any conflict”. Is the renunciation of ideological language in favor of the pragmatic to be considered among the reasons for the wide consensus gained by the Convention?
ROSSI: The pragmatic and non-ideological formulation that characterized these normative sources certainly helped the wide consensus gained. In this sense, it is important to remember a fundamental characteristic of humanitarian aid: its apolitical and neutral character. These rules are applied to all armed conflicts (in which countries signatory to the Convention are involved), independently of the political and ideological causes behind it. And it is precisely here that its strength and warranty lie. But the Convention of 1949 must not be considered a definitive point of arrival. It, too, evolved to keep pace with history. Thus in 1977, through the two additional Protocols, it became possible to distinguish two different categories of warlike events to which the International Humanitarian Law could be applied. The first protocol concerned «armed international conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and foreign occupation and against racist regimes, in the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, sanctioned by the United Nations Charter»; the second instead referred to armed conflicts that «take place on the territory of a State between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or organized armed groups that, under the leadership of a responsible command, exercise, over a part of the territory, such control as to permit them to conduct prolonged and concentrated military operations». In practice, at the end of the ’sixties, new types of conflicts emerged, not foreseen by the Convention, and that created the need to update the Charter of 1949.
During the Iranian conflict, particularly in Falluja, civilian housing was massively bombed. Does it not seem to you a departure from the Geneva Convention?
ROSSI: What happened in Falluja is tragic. But, apart from the specific case, the question presents itself in wider terms and is very delicate. Since the signing of the additional Protocols in 1977, almost thirty years have gone by and “more actual” types of conflict have emerged (terrorism, so-called preventive war, humanitarian intervention) that have again put into question the adequacy of the Humanitarian Law; something which seems to give a certain weight to arguments that have arisen in these last years, in the United States for example, which sees the Humanitarian Law of 1949 and 1977 as not applicable to a “modern” war against international terrorism. One is in fact dealing with a new kind of conflict, of a form not previously taken into account. The real knot to undo consists in the fact that terrorism in general is the work of small groups not easily identifiable, and an adjustment to the so-called Geneva Law to take account of that would be much more than a simple updating.
After 11 September the Geneva Convention was criticized, even being declared obsolete. Other exceptions aside, there is little information on what has happened in Guantánamo, but what happened in Abu Ghraib is fairly well known: how did it come to this and where does it lead?
ROSSI: Apart from the question of whether the Geneva safeguards can be applied to prisoners of war in collusion with terrorism – and it is certainly not applicable to terrorist acts committed in a time of peace – and leaving aside the decidedly singular nature of the Iranian conflict, it seems difficult to evade respect for the minimum of humanity that article 3 of the Convention refers to, which acts as a cover for all the possible lacuna in positive law, where it binds the parties in conflict to find, in all circumstances and in whatever type of armed clash, solutions that do not violate people’s rights as they result from the uses established among civilized nations, from laws of humanity and the requirements of public conscience. Without considering that in these cases an evaluation of a “political” kind is also needed: it is not possible to go ahead with serious acts of reprisal or with the degrading and humiliating treatment of prisoners without running the risk of indefinitely broadening terrorist action and risking reciprocal reprisal. Finally I would like to stress that the bombing of places of worship is expressly forbidden by the regulations of 1949.

Is it possible to resuscitate the Convention?
ROSSI: After the creation of the International Tribunals for Rwanda and for former Yugoslavia, but especially since the constitution of the International Criminal Court, the notion of individual penal responsibility for “war crimes” finally took on concrete meaning. In particular, it seems to me that the Statute of the Court, referring precisely to the “Geneva Law” in matters of war crimes, in itself resuscitated the 1949 Conventions. This is a positive fact because there is a precise reference to the Convention declaring it still current and binding. But, beyond that, I believe that greater commitment is needed from civil societies, an effort to sensitize that, starting from the grassroots, sets itself the goal of spreading knowledge of the regulations of the International Humanitarian Law to reach a shared vision of the very delicate issues concerning the worth and dignity of the human being. I maintain that a key role in this effort could be played by non-governmental organizations, the universities, national Red Cross associations and by the Red Crescent.
The signatures of countries whose relations are now characterized by considerable tension stand out at the foot of the Convention: the United States, Israel, Iran, North Korea, just to give a few examples. Could the resuscitation of the Convention and the spirit that animates it be a concrete way to try to go beyond this baleful clash of civilizations?
ROSSI: Certainly the resuscitation of the Convention would contribute to the re-launching of dialogue, but to get there political and governmental authorities have to be persuaded to accept the rules and the culture underlying them as fully valid. Here again the effort of sensitizing within civil societies can be useful. It would be no less useful to bring these issues to the center of UN activity, in a framework of a more incisive role for the United Nations as the driving force of international relations.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português