IRRC No. 320

The prohibition of reprisals in Protocol I: Greater protection for war victims

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It is not without reservations that I am responding to the invitation from the Review for ‘veterans’ of the Diplomatic Conference on the reaffirmation and development of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts (hereafter the Diplomatic Conference) to commemorate the signing 20 years ago of the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions. On 8 June 1977, all of us who contributed in one way or another to the drafting of those texts felt a sense of relief at having finally achieved our task. We also felt a kind of exhilaration at the thought that we had successfully completed an important undertaking that would benefit war victims. The two Protocols represented a major leap forward in the law of armed conflict. It should not be forgotten that practically two-thirds of the international community have now ratified these instruments. Yet compliance with them regrettably remains far from satisfactory. I need hardly recite the tragic litany of conflicts over the past 20 years that bear out this deficiency. The case best known to me is that of the “Yugoslav wars” (1991–1995). They constitute the clearest example of the yawning gap between the law itself and the degree to which it is implemented. What is even more worrying is that all of this is taking place in a world where the demise of “totalitarianism” has left the world with what is, for all practical purposes, a single centre of power. This centre comprises those States which, since the International Peace Conference held in 1899 in The Hague, have been inspired by their democratic traditions and their attachment to human rights and the rule of law to play a leading role in developing, affirming and reaffirming what today constitutes international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts. I therefore believe that this divergence between the letter of the law and the conduct of those responsible for implementing it results from a lack of determination on the part of governments to “ensure respect” for that law throughout the world. I am in no doubt whatsoever that they have sufficiently efficacious means at their disposal to do so. What is missing, unfortunately, is the political will.

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