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Geneva Conventions: 60th Birthday Is No Time To Retire

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The Geneva Conventions, the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, are 60 years old this week. They represent the most widely ratified and recognized legal instrument worldwide.

But 60 years on, they are now being violated in every modern conflict. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to the jungles of Colombia, we witness grave violations where innocent civilians, stuck in the middle of the battle zones, are being targeted and where millions of vulnerable people are deprived of life-saving assistance because of three inter-linked trends: deliberate obstruction, violence against aid workers, and the sheer intensity of conflicts.

In Afghanistan, civilian deaths in 2008 were at the highest levels since 2001. In the first half of this year, over 1000 civilians were killed, representing a 24 percent increase over the same period last year. Serious obstacles to deliver humanitarian assistance have also significantly increased and last year over 30 aid workers were killed, 78 abducted and 176 aid facilities attacked, forcing many NGOs to scale back their activities.

In the DRC, seven months ago, a UN-backed joint operation by Kigali and Kinshasa set in motion a spiral of violence against civilians which has forced over 800,000 to flee their homes and caused untold death and suffering that continues to this day.

Sexual violence against women, which is considered a crime against humanity, has been one of the most serious human rights and International Law violations throughout the Colombian conflict and has remained invisible both inside and outside Colombia.

The list sadly goes on.

Globally, by attempting to restrict the applicability of the Conventions for their own purposes, the Bush administration contributed to undermining them. Abu Ghraib, 'extraordinary renditions,' high civilian casualties in Afghanistan and (in the past) Iraq and U.S. silence over its allies' abuses also created a dangerous impression: that the 'war on terror' had to be won at all costs, and that substantial civilians suffering and the violation of international law were costs worth paying.

In light of this, it would be easy to say that the Conventions have failed. This attitude is intellectually lazy and deeply unhelpful. We should react to their endemic violations with anger and determination, not resignation.

This 'responsibility to protect' innocent civilians can be backed up by 'arguments to protect': reasoned cases to persuade at least some combatants that upholding the Conventions is in their interest.

This June, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan seemed to exemplify this approach when he said: "our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties -- even when doing so makes our task more difficult -- is essential."

His comments come as the United States shows a fresh commitment to upholding international humanitarian law. If the U.S. can change policy for the hardheaded reason that the previous policy failed, other governments may realize their interests lie in a stricter, not more relaxed, interpretation of the Conventions.

There must also, however, be 'pressure to protect.' The moral and legal responsibility for governments to do everything possible to protect civilians must be turned into a political imperative. Ultimately, this responsibility lies in the hands of all governments and, especially, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

These governments bear not only a moral and legal duty, but the main political responsibility to enforce and uphold international humanitarian law. There have been a few occasions where strong political pressure, timely action on the ground and targeted sanctions against main perpetrators have indeed contributed to reducing major violations. However, still too often, the Security Council has failed to agree upon urgently needed measures to protect civilians and effectively implement the conventions. No geopolitical calculation should allow that.

The Council's willingness to impose sanctions to tackle nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea is not matched these days by any similar willingness to impose and enforce sanction on governments that deny the provision of assistance to their own citizens. Those double standards must end.

The egregious cases of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, and Somalia grab the headlines, but Oxfam's workers hear similar stories of murder, rape, and displacement from women and men from Colombia to Sri Lanka every day. Levels of impunity and lawlessness in conflict zones throughout the world have reached crisis point.

It is time for our leaders to usher in a new era of adherence and commitment to international humanitarian law.