International Humanitarian Law (IHL) sets the boundaries for all types of armed conflict, be they international or non-international. Unlike other types of international law, IHL is binding on all parties including non-state actors.
IHL bans certain types of weaponry and munitions; prohibits the targeting of civilians, in particular humanitarian workers and health-care personnel; and requires the humane treatment of among others, Prisoners of War (PoWs) and the injured.
The International Red Cross Movement is largely responsible for the existence of these laws. The organisation was founded on principles outlined by Swiss activist Henri Dunant who was a founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the first ever Nobel Peace Prize winner along with economist Frederic Passy.
Dunant’s principles informed the agreement of the Geneva Conventions which requires signatories to recognise the Red Cross as an impartial agent of humanitarian support to all sides in time of conflict.
Numerous other IHL treaties and declarations have followed the initial Geneva Convention (1864) such as the Hague Conventions, the four Geneva Conventions (1949) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted by 107 States in Dublin in 2008.
All countries in the world have ratified the Geneva Conventions and therefore are obliged to promote public awareness and understanding of IHL. The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is also tasked with promoting humanitarian law.
So at home, it is the responsibility of the Irish Red Cross, like all national societies, to promote respect and understanding for IHL in the community. We take part in this through campaigns, conferences and other forms of communications and education.
For example, we promote correct use of the Red Cross emblem. The emblem is a life-saver indicating medical staff or facilities in conflict zones and any misuse can be penalised under Irish and international law.
For IHL to be useful in times of war it must be understood during times of peace. When conflict occurs, it is often too late.