Geneva Conventions at 60: US should take the lead on civilian protection

By Oxfam

BOSTON—Sixty years after the Geneva Conventions of 1949 enshrined the rights of civilians in times of armed conflict, the fundamental principles that civilians should be protected from violence and have access to assistance are violated in every current conflict, said international aid agency Oxfam America today.

“If something is not done to reverse this trend, international humanitarian law may soon be irrelevant to those who need it most. The United States must take concrete steps to increase global adherence and accountability to the Geneva Conventions,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one the most extreme examples of threats facing civilians. Eight percent of the country's citizens have died in the ongoing conflict there. If the United States lost a similar proportion of civilians, 25 million people, more than the population of Texas, would have died. Yet, the cycle of killing and impunity in the Congo continues, not only through violence but through the disease and poverty that war brings with it. In Somalia, where civilians are killed daily, they are further endangered by a lack of access to life-saving assistance—a right enshrined in the Conventions.

The killing of civilians is not limited to the horror stories from Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia but includes conflicts such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where civilians are among the many casualties of warfare.

Thankfully, the US is beginning to show a fresh commitment to upholding international humanitarian law in its own military and globally. This June, the new US commander in Afghanistan made a strong case for upholding the Conventions based on US national security interests and the new US strategy on Afghanistan puts the protection of civilians at the center of military policy. In addition to military support for increased US adherence to the Conventions, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, pledged in her first speech to the UN Security Council that the United States would work together with the United Nations and international organizations such as the ICRC in a new era in support for international humanitarian law.

“There have been encouraging signs from the Obama administration; however we need to take real action now. The US can use this change of policy and approach to lead the world on better adherence to the conventions,” said Offenheiser.

Oxfam recommends that the United States take the following actions to increase global adherence of the Geneva Conventions:

  • The United States should adhere to the Conventions on its own military operations,
  • Publicly challenge violations of International Humanitarian Law, even if the violators are US allies.
  • Work with allies to engage in high-level diplomatic efforts to encourage countries to adhere to Conventions.
  • When other efforts fail, work with the UN to impose and closely monitor the implementation of sanctions targeted on political and military leaders who commit war crimes.
  • Build capacity of the Department of State to engage in preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. Years of underinvestment in civilian foreign policy tools have left the US incapable of effectively using non-military tools to protect people caught in the crossfire.

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