70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

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On Thursday 24 October, the Irish Red Cross hosted a conference titled Conflict in ten years’ time – Future of International Humanitarian Law. The purpose of the conference was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions enshrine the principle that even wars have limits and were adopted in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II.

President Michael D. Higgins delivered the keynote opening address which was then followed by an interactive panel discussion on the Conventions and their relevance today. Declan Smyth from the Legal Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs also spoke at the conference regarding the work of the National Committee on IHL and Attorney General Séamus Woulfe brought the event to a close.

Irish Red Cross

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins

Opening the day’s discussion, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins captured the room’s attention with the stark reminder that the international community is continuing to witness the demise of peace and security across the globe. In highlighting this, an Uachtaráin did not hold back in expressing his sentiments at the current state of international affairs in his keynote address

:“[I]t strikes me as nothing less than a moral outrage that in recent times, and yet again, our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of new science and technology, are being turned, not to the promotion and preservation of peace, but to the pursuit and prosecution of war.”

Despite calling to attention the sad reality of conflict in modern society, an Uachtaráin also shed light on the importance of the Geneva Conventions as they act as one of the very few universally ratified international treaties and that although the rules are often flouted, we still also witness widespread respect for the Conventions and their principles; 

“We see the impact of the Geneva Conventions on a daily basis in areas of conflict and contestation: when a wounded person is allowed through a checkpoint, when civilians are spared, when detainees are treated humanely or are permitted contact with their families.”

Concluding his keynote address, an Uachtaráin gave a call to action for the international community to work together in its attempt to ensure that respect and justice continue to be a part of modern conflict:

“Let us re-capture that rare spirit of mutual solidarity, that recognition of our common humanity, our shared, if differing, vulnerabilities, and let us once again resolve to build, together, as lámha a chéile, a more just and equal world, free from the terrors of war.”

Panel Discussion – an invigorating and thought-provoking analysis

Irish Red Cross

Continuing on from an Uachtaráin’s keynote address, Senator Ivana Bacik chaired a stimulating discussion between three esteemed panellists: Director of the Defence Forces Legal Services, Colonel Jerry Lane; Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr Helen Durham; and Senior Humanitarian Specialist at Médecins Sans Frontieres, Michiel Hofman.

Opening the panel discussion, Colonel Jerry Lane gave an informative overview of IHL from the perspective of the Defence Forces including the challenges facing the implementation and the future of IHL. Colonel Lane particularly emphasised the challenges imposed by the rapid development of weapons technology as modern society embarks into new and unchartered territory compared to the 19th century landscape from which the Conventions were borne

Speaking on behalf of ICRC, Dr Helen Durham highlighted the narrative around respect for IHL, and how it has become increasingly negative in its focus on violations. In order to challenge this, Dr Durham spoke of a new project that the ICRC are engaged in, as they have started to record cases of respect for IHL in a database. In her speech Dr Durham stated that the focus on violations and accountability is important, but the daily implementation of IHL in the field is very often overlooked. We have to build on positive examples of respect, and this project is one way of doing that.”

The closing panellist, Michiel Hofman, gave a more critical analysis of the current situation. In his remarks, the humanitarian specialist emphasised the absolute importance of ensuring protection for hospitals and medical workers during conflict and the impact of counter-terrorism measures being imposed by governments. He also highlighted that such measures were putting humanitarian actors working in conflict zones at risk as States attempt to criminalise anyone deemed to be supporting ‘terrorist’ organisations, without any regard for humanitarians on the ground – a point which was also touched upon by Dr Durham.

The Irish Red Cross hosted the conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and will continue in its mandate to disseminate IHL and encourage respect for the Conventions. The conference was attended by members of the Oireachtas, the international diplomatic corps, senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, academia, the NGO community and experts on International Humanitarian Law.

Vivien Lusted - Florence Nightingale medal

The conference also saw President Michael D.Higgins present the Florence Nightingale medal to Irish Red Cross nurse, Vivien Lusted. This medal is the highest international distinction a Red Cross Red Crescent nurse can achieve. The nomination for this award centred around Vivien’s 18-month mission in Iraq where she worked as a detention nurse.

If you would like more information on any upcoming events such as this or more generally on IHL then please contact Maebh Butler, International Programme Assistant, at mbutler@redcross.ie.