Archive for geneva conventions

The Legacies of ‘Never Again’: Genocide Prevention Activism

By: Jalileh Garcia, Staff Writer for Rights Views

Every year in the month of December, the Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Network holds a conference where scholars and practitioners share their scholarship and experiences in the field of historical dialogue. 

This year’s theme was “Prevention Activism: Advancing Historical Dialogue in Post-Conflict Settings.” The event’s theme sought to understand how to address and redress the violent past in order to prevent ethnic and political conflicts in the future. The conference took place  December 12-14 at Columbia University. 

From left to right: Andrea Zemskov-Zuege, Ilya Nuzov, Mark Wolfgram, Baskara Wardaya, and Elisenda Calvet Martinez. Photo by Jalileh Garcia

On Saturday, December 14, Mark Wolfgram from the University of Ottawa opened the event “Uses of History in Genocide Prevention II” by stating that the panelists would speak about their experiences and expertise in different countries and on distinct thematic issues that addressed how to ensure non-recurrence of genocides and mass atrocities through prevention activism, or the effort to record, acknowledge, address and redress the violent past. 

Ilya Nuzov, the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk Director at the International Federation of Human Rights, started the panel. He focused on the normative aspects of preventative activism, particularly on truth as a tool of prevention. The right to truth is linked to the right to effective remedy, which is codified in Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 14 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), among other international agreements. Nuzov shared that truth has two aspects: the individual and collective. Individually, it is the right of each person to know what happened to them or their loved ones in past genocides that have affected them. Collectively, it is the right of society to know what happened in their violent past.

“While punishment is used as the primary measure to ensure non-recurrence of genocide and other mass atrocities, the fulfillment of the right to truth also carries a preventative potential,” explained Nuzov. By learning about the causes and events of past crimes, states recognize their responsibility in said crimes, while also acknowledging particular social identity groups that suffered as a result. 

Nuzov then presented the question “What is the legal regime for prevention?.” He argued that the legal basis for the fulfillment of the right to truth lies in the international legal obligations of states to prevent mass atrocity crimes. This duty has been present in various human rights conventions such as the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 1 of the Convention states that “[t]he Contracting Parties confirm that genocide… is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” While the duty to prevent is mentioned, the extent of the duty is really only expounded in the current draft of the Crimes Against Humanity Convention, he explained. 

Mass atrocities that are left in impunity have the ability of manifesting into future violence, as there has been no accountability for grave crimes, victims are not redressed for their suffering, and there is no consensus on the truth of the events that occurred. As such, addressing grave human rights violations is vital to ensure non-recurrence. Truth, in this sense, could function as a tool to prevent future atrocities. 

Andrea Zemskov-Zuege, consultant with the organizations Change of Perspective and Culture for Peace, presented on prevention activism in Burma, now called Myanmar. Providing a brief historical context of the situation, she highlighted the present massive state-induced media campaign and violence against Rohingya Muslims perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces with the support of armed Rakhine Buddhist individuals. Due to the rise of violence towards the Rohingya, many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. There has also been the emergence of a Muslim resistance movement, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is now called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is commanded on the ground by Rohingya who use their guerilla training to organize attacks. 

Because the two identities – the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – are increasingly isolated, Zuege found that the best approach to bridge these communities together would be through narrative. The exchange of experiences through narrative hopes to create empathy, while reducing estrangement and achieving advocacy for minorities by each of the groups. She emphasized the importance of choice in this approach, as it means people are actively willing to learn and share. 

Narrative approaches can take various forms. In Myanmar, there were two projects executed by several organizations. The organizations began by training youth from Rakhine and Rohingya communities to facilitate storytelling sessions among their respective communities based on biographical experiences. Here, facilitators would also introduce basic conflict transformation themes. After coordinating storytelling sessions in their communities, the Rakhine and Rohingya youth facilitators then came together and shared their experiences with each other in efforts to improve their community work. Zuege mentioned how sharing biographical experiences is a central feature of the program in Myanmar, as it a low-key method for the exchange of experiences because it is not confrontational and allows both the Rakhine and Rohingya people to get to know each other. 

Baskara Wardaya, lecturer of History at Sanata Dharma University, spoke next of the role that everyone has to play in remembering the aftermath of the 1965 mass violence in Indonesia. He provided a brief historical context of the situation, sharing that mass killings in Indonesia led to the deaths of more than 500,000 people in efforts to eradicate “communist threats.” The Communist Party, known as the PKI, had gained much traction in Indonesia. As such, the military had become wary of the party’s rise in power and the possibility of a rebellion in the country. The event which marked history was the murder of six senior army generals and one lieutenant in October 1965, which was subsequently blamed on the PKI. Shortly after, the killings against against any person suspected of being communist or having ties to the communist movement began. Eventually, Suharto, the General of the Army, took power over the presidency in 1967. As such, Suharto came to control all of the narratives of what happened in 1965, concealing the truth about the events that had occurred for the next 31 years, shared Wardaya. 

Organizations hoping to expose the horrors of the 1965 mass killings arose as a response to the government’s efforts to hide the truth. Sekber 65 is one of these organizations. It was established in 2005 and is comprised of civil society members. Sekber 65 raises awareness of the crimes committed by the Indonesian army in 1965 through truth-telling. Members publish magazines, books, or have artistic performances that convey true stories of the suffering that took place. 

Explaining why Sekber 65 takes a non-judicial approach, Wardaya described that “dealing with the 1965 issue by taking the case to court would be ineffective, which is why we started doing these activities.” In fact, through the civil society initiatives, the government has slowly shown more signs of cooperation towards taking on the issue.  

Elisenda Calvet Martinez, Assistant Professor of International Law at Universidad de Barcelona, was the last to speak. Her presentation focused on combating corruption and impunity as a guarantee of non-repetition in Guatemala. She looked specifically at the role that the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played in the country.

Elisenda Calvet Martinez. Photo by Jalileh Garcia

Beginning in 1960 and lasting until 1996, Guatemala found itself in a civil war fought between the government military forces and leftist rebel groups.  Martinez states that in this internal armed conflict more than 200,000 civilians were murdered. Sources indicated that most civilian casualties were indigenous people, and that the State of Guatemala perpetrated a genocide against its Mayan inhabitants. Yet, according to Martinez, the violence after conflict was even higher than during the armed conflict. As such, the unsustainable violence in Guatemala led to the creation of the CICIG, which was formalized through an agreement between the UN and the State of Guatemala. 

The CICIG’s mandate centered on the dismantling of illegal security groups and clandestine security structures, which were created during the armed conflict. They provided special recommendations for institutional reform, worked on more than 100 cases of high impact, and identified 60 criminal structures. By trying the impunity of the past, the CICIG sought to hold accountable the people responsible for abuses during the internal armed conflict, many of whom continue to retain much of the country’s political and financial power to this day. 

As a whole, the speakers made the audience speculate on how to deal with the past as a way to move forward in the future. Overall, the panelists provided the audience with diverse viewpoints and shared different methods for genocide or mass atrocity prevention ranging from using the normative legal regime to narratives, civil society organizations, or UN commissions against impunity. 

It was particularly interesting to see how Zuege grappled with these questions of truth. She believed that in conflict narratives, individuals with different social identities and experiences would have ideas of the truth that do not always contend. As such, Group A and Group B would believe differently about an issue depending on how they felt. Yet, these narratives begin to line up when one puts them together. Meanwhile, the CICIG determines culpability of individuals involved in illegal and clandestine security forces which reinforces guilt in a case, and not conciliation. While the effectiveness of all of these methods are to be determined or hard to assess, they provide hope that individuals can improve their current or past country situations. 

While the panelists’ perspectives and experiences varied in context, all of the speakers grappled with how to record, acknowledge, address and redress the violent past in order to counter violent and hateful realities. In this way, we see how the human rights regime allows for flexibility in how to address genocide or mass atrocities and ensure their non-recurrence.

A Living Text? Dr. Hugo Slim on War, Humanity, and the Geneva Conventions under the ICRC’s Mandate

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews

The International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) reverence for its mandate to the Geneva Conventions was obvious as Columbia students welcomed Hugo Slim, ICRC’s Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division, to speak on “War and Humanity: Challenges and Trends in the 70th Year of the Geneva Conventions” on November 6.

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

From its founding in 1863 in Geneva, the ICRC has been committed to the provision of international humanitarian aid, embedding itself as one of the core players in international humanitarian law (IHL) as it developed over time to regulate jus in bello, or the “conduct of war.” It was the ICRC that convinced states in 1864 to adopt the very first Geneva Convention, creating a universal obligation of care for all wounded soldiers. From that moment on, it was also the ICRC that ultimately headlined what the IHL community now holds as some of its most fundamental texts: the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two 1977 protocols. These texts are the ICRC’s mandate, and as an organization, it holds them near and dear. 

Dr. Hugo Slim, with a copy of the Geneva Conventions. Photo by Rowena Kosher

Dr. Slim, a renowned figure in the humanitarian world, began his presentation by holding up a book: a dog-eared, well-worn, coffee-stained text containing the language of the Geneva Conventions. This book, he began, started in 1949 with only 60 states having ratified it. Now, in 2019, 197 states have acceded to the Geneva Conventions, and many parts of it have become so intuitive that states understand them as pieces of customary, binding law. “[This book] is a moral, legal, and political achievement,” he articulated, “and a real high point of humanitarian multilateralism.” 

And yet, although the Conventions are both an achievement and existing law, they are no less relevant today than they were during the World Wars. Slim described that these are texts that focus on violence and our response to violence—a reality that “continues to mark the human species in the present day.” Indeed, both the Conventions and the international environment face a changed world: one with more states parties, with more technology, with new mechanisms of warfare. All of this, he claimed, is vital to the ICRC fulfilling and furthering international humanitarian ethics. 

To accomplish this task, Slim believes in beginning with a return to the text, asking “what does humanity look like in the Geneva Conventions?” If the ICRC is mandated to protect humans in wartime, who does it serve, to what ends, and in what philosophical conception? 

On the most basic level, Slim said, the Geneva Conventions conceive of four groups of “protected persons:” the wounded and sick, the wounded at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians. These are the explicitly articulated classes of the legal text. Yet, the Conventions go beyond this to articulate protection of certain human relationships and human objects; relations or things that the texts deem “necessary to be fully human.” The relationships that the Conventions protect include family and the idea of “being with others in this world and not just being alone.” Objects essential to human survival, such as food, water, medicine, and business, also get recognition. On a cultural level, Slim argued that the Conventions protect objects essential to human meaning, from religious objects and sites to cultural property, such as libraries and historic art. To go even further, he noted that the environment enjoys protections of its own in the Conventions, receiving a legal personality by virtue of the fact that in order to be human, one needs the environment. 

Humanity, then, in the Geneva Conventions, is holistic. Slim said “To be alive is a matter of biology, but to live a life of dignity, one that is truly human, requires relationships and means of survival.” The Conventions move beyond the physical life into the communal life, beyond the human into the earth. He claimed that humanity becomes physical, emotional, and spiritual as the Conventions likewise function as a combination of law, military manual, social work guidance, and administrative guidance. Under their five action distinctions (precaution, distinction between soldier/civilian/object, proportionality, impartial relief, and human treatment), the Geneva Conventions enact their vision of humanity within the context of armed conflict. 

Slim’s main priority as the policy director of ICRC requires that he operationalize the Conventions’ vision of humanity in the present day, addressing the trends and challenges that have cropped up in our changing world. In this lecture, he listed several major strategic shifts worldwide that he sees as most pressing for the ICRC and the Geneva Conventions, as they attempt to accomplish their goals for humanitarian aid. 

Political Change

Photo by Michelle Chouinard

A total of 133 new states have acceded to the Conventions since 1949. The vast majority of these new parties are formerly colonized nations taking their rightful places on the world stage. This has challenged the “older” approach to global policy in which negotiations were a discussion among “like-minded states.” Now, Slim said, we live in a multipolar political environment. As such, the ICRC must answer with “multipolar diplomacy,” focusing on extending its network with a “multipolar footprint” and “network of multipolar relationships.” 

 

A Radical Conservative Wave

In recent years, a radical conservative wave has swept through many parts of the world, from the US to the UK to India. Slim recognized that it can be tempting to dismiss conservative nations, however,  the ICRC must find new ways of relating with conservative nations when it comes to international aid. In order to fulfil its mandate, the ICRC hopes to practice “humanitarian diplomacy” so as to find areas of ethical overlap between the principles of the Geneva Conventions and traditional conservative values. We need to “find a genuine humanitarian contract,” he argued. 

Changing Warfare

The security situation in 2019 is marked by several differences compared to 1949. To start, Slim explained, militaries as of the past few years have developed so-called “near peer conflict worries,” concerned about growing threats from fellow Great Power “peers” developing into another Great Power conflict. Such a conflict would change the field of humanitarian aid immensely. 

In addition, the ICRC has observed increased salience of coalition warfare, resulting in a complicated mix of states and armed groups as partners in armed conflicts. This has repercussions for the Geneva Conventions. Not all partners may be party to the treaty, leading to inconsistent adherence to IHL amongst coalitions themselves. The ICRC is currently working on an initiative to ensure IHL respect by all partners to a collation, Slim said, although it is not yet clear that it will succeed.

Lastly, the ICRC is paying close attention to the implications of the rise in urban warfare, which brings along with it particular worries about technology and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas. There are unique concerns to think about when a method of war may involve the ability to sabotage entire electrical grids or stop entire cities. In order to protect civilians, the ICRC has an initiative asking states to agree to a policy of non-use of explosive weapons in highly populated areas unless under real military necessity. 

Weapons old and new

The ICRC has had strong stances on the use of highly destructive weapons of war since its founding. Of the “old” weapons the ICRC has always, since 1945, advocated for the abolition of nuclear weapons. “There is no way to use a nuclear weapon which is in compliance with this book,” he noted, holding up his copy of the conventions. Just because they have been around for a while, we cannot let nuclear weapons slip into history, he added. The ICRC will maintain its anti-nuclear position.

New weapons, however, also need to be addressed. The ICRC is particularly concerned about digitalization, autonomy, artificial intelligence, and deep learning technologies, which have put weapons systems on “the cusp of a major revolution,” according to Slim. Great powers are in a technological arms race, and the unfortunate paradox of this is that no one wants to begin anti-proliferation negotiation until they have already become the proverbial “winner”; thus the present day finds us in an utter freeze of negotiations. For the ICRC, Slim described a present focus on ethical arguments, attempting to articulate what the proper use of these weapons would be. Slim sees the policy of maintaining human control as key to addressing future high tech weapons. 

Protracted Conflict and Fragility

Many conflicts today have been going on for decades, not to mention the continued effects felt from post colonization, he said. Short- and long-term work is important in protracted conflict. He believes the ICRC should stay aware of the nexus between humanitarian development and peace, along with the fact that this requires dedication to a multi-year investment so as to have “sustainable humanitarian impact.” 

Climate and Conflict

Slim noted that the ICRC sees a growing trend in the number of people who are dealing with simultaneously conflict and climate shocks. “What does it mean to live with both these profound risks at one time? What does this mean for ICRC’s actions?” he asked, and then noted the ICRC’s intent to green itself as an institution. 

People’s participation and a shift in humanitarian agency

Photo by Rowena Kosher.

Humanitarian aid has a history of a colonial mindset on the part of aid-givers to aid-receivers. Recognizing the ICRC’s complicity in this history, Slim articulated the need to change the grammar of aid. Rather than the patriarchal, patronizing “subject-verb-object” form of WE help YOU, humanitarian grammar must become more prepositional: “YOU are surviving, YOU are the subject of your lives, YOU are amazingly surviving with help from us.” This new approach, beyond grammar, is intersectional in intent, with the goal of giving more power to people in organizing and discussing what is best for them, rather than imposing assumed needs. 

In addition to participation from those receiving aid from ICRC, Slim noted that donors increasingly want a say in how their funds are distributed by the organization. Trust, which will be the main focus at the ICRC’s upcoming December conference in Geneva, takes on two forms: operational trust and accountability. The ICRC must find a balance between compliance systems and a principle of trust with its donors, remembering that at the heart of this relationship is risk-sharing. “If you want to be in the game of helping people,” Slim said, “you will have to risk something.” 

What does it matter that these trends be examined? How do the Geneva Conventions translate to today’s day and age? These are crucial questions that interrogate the philosophical, practical, and human implications of war. Despite the forward progression of time, war and violence remain as high as ever, though somewhat changed in modality and nature. Humanitarian aid remains necessary. The Geneva Conventions are certainly well-worn, but they are also a living document, requiring the constant re-investigation and re-interpretation by states, parties to conflict, and aid providers like the ICRC.