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8596th Meeting (AM)

Geneva Conventions More Crucial Than Ever, Humanitarian Experts Stress, as Security Council Marks Seventieth Anniversary of Key Instruments

In a global landscape marked by complex, asymmetrical conflicts — as well as the increasingly common use of autonomous weapons — the 1949 Geneva Conventions are more crucial than ever, prominent legal and humanitarian figures told the Security Council today, as members considered the relevance of international humanitarian law in a rapidly changing world.

Council members joined United Nations and other humanitarian experts in hailing the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions — the seventieth anniversary of which was observed on 11 August — as one of the international community’s most important accomplishments.  Recalling that their broad ratification established baseline norms on the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war, as well as the shipwrecked, sick and wounded, several speakers pointed out that international law strikes a balance between military necessity and humanity in times of war.

Briefing by video-conference from Geneva at the meeting’s outset, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that in adopting the Geneva Conventions, countries made a critical declaration:  “That even in armed conflict, even between fierce enemies, there must be limits on the suffering that we can inflict upon each other.”  Today, international humanitarian law remains a key tool for dealing with contemporary conflict, he added.  Noting that it can reduce the risk of physical and social damage to communities, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, spare civilians and prevent the collapse of entire towns, he nevertheless emphasized that — while universally ratified — the Geneva Conventions are not being universally respected.

The Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs recalled that the Council first invoked the Geneva Conventions in 1967 and has since made express and repeated reference to them.  The results include such concrete actions as the establishment of international war crime tribunals, the deployment of commissions of inquiry, the imposition of sanctions and the mandating of peacekeeping operations to protect civilians.  “The breadth of actions taken by the Security Council shows that the Council has great potential and flexibility for ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.”

Meanwhile, a strategic adviser from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights emphasized that the protracted nature of armed conflicts has long-term consequences that deeply affect the mental and physical health of civilians.  Pointing out that the scope of the Geneva Conventions has evolved to include the behaviour of non-State actors — which feature in most of today’s armed conflicts — she expressed concern that the international community has neglected the manner in which non-State groups understand, value and implement such norms.  Indeed, it is critical to consider non-State actors not only as perpetrators of violations, but as actors who can play a positive role in implementing international humanitarian law, she stressed.

As Council members took the floor, many speakers said the Geneva Conventions and their Optional Protocols have shaped the course of history.  However, some echoed concerns that international humanitarian law is being ignored in many of today’s hotspots, even accusing some actors of building violations — including the starvation of civilians and attacks against hospitals — into their wartime strategies.  Others suggested that the increasing depersonalization of conflict, including the use of drones and artificial intelligence, may require revisions to the current international legal framework.

Poland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, asking how it is possible that so many people continue to suffer the brutality of warfare, despite the universal ratification of the Geneva Conventions.  Noting that much of today’s fighting takes place in densely populated urban areas, he said it often involves non-State armed groups and the targeting of “soft targets”, such as civilians.  “This new reality of modern conflict, increasing role of non-State actors and legal loopholes […] hinders the application of international law in many ways,” he said, emphasizing that such shifts may require an examination of whether the existing rules are still sufficient.

France’s representative described intentional violations of the Geneva Conventions as unacceptable, even when undertaken as part of national counter-terrorism strategies.  “You do not fire on an ambulance,” she stressed.  France incorporates international humanitarian law in all its military operations from the earliest planning phases, she said.  Joining other speakers in addressing the novel challenges posed by emerging technologies, she declared: “The rise of artificial intelligence should not move any of the red lines set out in international humanitarian law.”  Instead, it should help parties better respect those rules in the conflicts of tomorrow.

China’s representative agreed that the development of cyber technology and artificial intelligence, as well as the frequency of international armed conflict, all pose new challenges.  Urging the Council to tackle the underlying causes of conflict, he also called upon the international community to help States implement their international obligations and upon humanitarian agencies to engage in training and technical support — all with strict respect for the principle of national sovereignty.

Germany’s Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said the crimes committed at the end of the Second World War led countries to adopt the Geneva Conventions as a cornerstone of international law.  As for whether the Council is doing its job in defending their principles, he pointed out that its members convene repeatedly, even as people continue to die around the world.  “We are failing the most vulnerable,” he stressed, urging Member States that may not agree on the political elements of crises to bridge their differences when lives are at stake.  Calling for concrete action “today, not tomorrow”, he said the Geneva Conventions remain a sign of hope and their implementation a core duty for all nations.

Also speaking were representatives of the United Kingdom, South Africa (also on behalf of Côte d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea), Kuwait, Dominican Republic, Belgium, United States, Russian Federation, Indonesia and Peru.

The meeting began at 10:06 a.m. and ended at 12:08 p.m.


MIGUEL DE SERPA SOARES, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, recalled that a diplomatic conference adopted the four Geneva Conventions on 11 August 1949, and on the following day, participating States signed its Final Act.  The Conventions entered into force on 21 October 1950 and have been at the core of international humanitarian law ever since.  They were by no means completely novel at the time, the first three finding their origins in previous treaties, he noted.  The First Convention deals with the wounded and sick among armed forces in the field; the Second with wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea; and the Third with prisoners of war.  The Fourth Convention was the first treaty dedicated specifically to the protection of civilians during war, he emphasized.

Most provisions of the four Conventions are applicable to international armed conflicts, meaning those between States, he continued.  However, each contains a provision that applies to non-international armed conflicts, which is Article 3, common to all the Geneva Conventions.  This provision contains basic rules on the humane treatment of persons taking no active part in hostilities, including armed forces members who have laid down their arms.  The inclusion of common Article 3 in the Geneva Conventions was an historic moment for humanity, marking the first instance in which non-international armed conflicts were regulated by multilateral treaty, he said, explaining that its significance is augmented by the fact that the Conventions are now universally upheld.  There is no doubt that common Article 3 has become one of the most important provisions of the Conventions, notably because it is perhaps the most frequently applied provision in contemporary armed conflicts, which are mostly non-international in nature.

Noting that common Article 3 was supplemented by Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions, he said that, whereas several customary rules have been recognized as being applicable to non-international armed conflicts, Article 3 occupies a special place in international humanitarian law.  The Charter of the United Nations outlines one of the Organization’s purposes as being to “achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of a humanitarian character” and promoting respect for human rights, he said, pointing out that international humanitarian law has become one of the most important areas of law guiding the work of the United Nations.  Article 89 of Protocol I specifically recognizes its role, requiring that the High Contracting Parties act — jointly or individually — in cooperation with the United Nations in situations of serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and of the Protocol.

He went on to note that, in practice, all United Nations organs have dealt with issues relating to international humanitarian law in one way or another.  The Security Council itself has recalled “its primary responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security” and the need to promote respect for international humanitarian law, including most recently in resolution 2474 (2019).  It was only in 1967 that the Council invoked the Conventions for the first time in one of its resolutions — almost 20 years after their adoption, he said, noting that it has made express references to them since then.  More generally, the Council has played a crucial role in ensuring respect for international humanitarian law, condemning violations and calling upon parties to respect their obligations, he said.

The Council has also taken such measures as creating international criminal tribunals to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity; establishing international commissions of inquiry to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law; mandating peacekeeping operations to protect civilians during armed conflict; authorizing humanitarian agencies to carry out cross-border assistance initiatives, pursuant to a binding resolution; requesting that the Secretary-General monitor potential violations or report on the protection of civilians; and imposing sanctions on those involved in violations of international humanitarian law.  “The breadth of actions taken by the Security Council shows that the Council has great potential and flexibility for ensuring respect for international humanitarian law,” he said.

Similarly, he continued, the United Nations is an entity to which international humanitarian law applies, particularly peacekeeping operations deployed to situations of armed conflict, some of them increasingly targeted by armed groups.  There is no doubt United Nations peacekeepers are protected by international humanitarian law in armed conflict situations and entitled to the humane treatment set out in Article 3, he emphasized.  The Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel prohibits such attacks and requires States to submit relevant cases to competent authorities for prosecution.  In practice, the Convention’s application to non-signatory countries has become possible only through ad hoc arrangements, such as including a provision in the relevant status-of-forces and status-of-mission agreements.

He went on to press Council members to reflect on how to ensure that attacks against peacekeepers are investigated properly and, where appropriate, perpetrators prosecuted.  Noting that the Council has mandated the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to carry out targeted offensive operations in “strict compliance with international law”, he said that guidance has been provided to ensure that the Mission’s military operations are carried out in strict compliance.  The Secretariat will continue to make every effort to ensure that peacekeepers comply with international humanitarian law, he said, underlining that it counts upon the support of the Council and Member States in that regard.

PETER MAURER, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), briefed by video-conference, pointing out that in adopting the now 70-year-old Geneva Conventions, States made a critical declaration: “That even in armed conflict, even between fierce enemies, there must be limits on the suffering that we can inflict upon each other.”  Indeed, “the Geneva Conventions symbolize our enduring and common humanity” and represent one of the greatest achievements of inter-State cooperation, he said, emphasizing that the countries adopting the Conventions were not carried away by lofty ideals; rather, they knew the realities of war and set out inherently pragmatic rules to protect and respect human life and dignity.  Today, international humanitarian law remains a key tool for States to deal with contemporary conflict, including counter-terrorism operations during armed conflict, he said, adding that, in that context, international humanitarian law strikes a balance between military necessity and humanity.

“Every single day international humanitarian law is at work saving lives and protecting women, men and children in conflicts around the world,” he continued.  Whereas violations of international humanitarian law are both tragic and visible, it is also important to recognize their protective power when implemented.  International humanitarian law, when respected, reduces the risk of physical and social damage to communities over the long term, he said.  Humanitarian assistance is delivered across lines, civilians are spared from shelling, medical workers can operate freely, and the collapse of entire towns and villages can be avoided.  “While the Geneva Conventions are universally ratified, it is clear by the obvious suffering in today’s conflicts that they are not universally respected,” he said, citing such repercussions as indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, destruction of cities and psychological trauma.

Rather than demonstrating the inadequacy of laws, such violations reveal that it is efforts to ensure respect for laws that are inadequate.  “We can, and must, do more,” he stressed, noting that the challenge is to ensure not only that laws are integrated into formal doctrines and military procedures, but also that they become the ethical standard of behaviour among forces and individuals.  Calling upon States to remain vigilant, he also encouraged them to ratify all international humanitarian law-related treaties; strengthen military doctrine, rules of engagement and practice; ensure that military training socializes the rules and principles of international humanitarian law; develop national legislation compatible with their international obligations; and train parliamentarians and legal professionals on international humanitarian law.  “It is a task of ensuring that the words of the Geneva Conventions do not remain dormant in legal texts, but instead are known, applied and championed,” he said.

ANNYSSA BELLAL, Strategic Adviser and Senior Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, said the protracted nature of armed conflicts has long-term consequences on civilians, deeply affecting their mental and physical health.  Pointing out a recent sign that the global community feels a need to be more involved in implementing humanitarian norms, she said that in April, the World Health Organization (WHO) denounced violations of international humanitarian law in Libya in connection with fighting that killed 147 people and injured 614 others, even though the agency’s mandate does not mention the terms “armed conflict” or “international humanitarian law”.  She suggested using existing mechanisms, such as the Peacebuilding Fund, to create new ways to implement international humanitarian law.  For instance, one could imagine a conditionality between the behaviour of parties to a conflict and the financial aid they may receive through the Peacebuilding Fund, without prejudice, of course, to the civilian population.

Turning to the second area, she pointed out that most of today’s armed conflicts are non-international and involve non-State actors — often symptoms of deep societal issues.  The Geneva Conventions have evolved to address and regulate the behaviour of non-State actors, binding them to norms pertaining to the conduct of hostilities.  However, the international community has neglected the manner in which non-State actors understand, value and implement these norms, she emphasized.  Recalling the Council’s debate on the impact of counter-terrorism legislation, she cautioned that labelling armed non-State actors as “terrorist” groups limits the possibility of humanitarian engagement with such actors.  Hence, it is important to consider non-State actors not only as perpetrators of violations, but as actors who can play a positive role in implementing international humanitarian law, if only because they are often very close to their constituencies, she said.

The final area involves recognizing the benefits of peer pressure, she said, noting that such mechanisms as universal periodic reviews have proven feasible for such politically sensitive matters as respect for human rights norms.  Recognizing the benefits of peer pressure remains an interesting way forward to improve the overall system of protecting international humanitarian law, she added.  In closing, she quoted the late author Toni Morrison, who underlined the importance of language, “partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as an agency, as an act of compassion”.  Noting that the language of the Geneva Conventions laid the foundation of an innovative and courageous legal system, she said it is respected by lawyers, humanitarian actors, States and the Security Council.  In a State-centric system, States and the Council have control and are the agents of change.  “And we, scholars, students, humanitarians and victims, count on you because we are all in this together.”


JACEK CZAPUTOWICZ, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland and Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, noting the rarity of universally ratified treaties whose principles and legal norms are widely recognized as customary international law.  The strengthening of international law has always been a priority for Poland, he said, explaining in particular the country’s difficult history in which it was “painfully affected by the consequences of other States’ failures to comply with international agreements”.  Asking how it is possible that so many people can continue to suffer the brutality of warfare, he emphasized that non-observance and failure to respect existing rules on the part of armed forces and non-State armed groups pose the greatest challenge to the protection of human life in modern conflict.  Meanwhile, new developments in contemporary armed conflict entails fighting conducted largely in densely populated urban areas, often by non-State armed groups, and the parties seek “soft targets” such as civilians, he noted, adding that artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons are reducing the role of humans more broadly.

Underlining the continued relevance of the Geneva Conventions in the modern context, he spotlighted the obligation to protect civilians, prisoners of war and the wounded and shipwrecked.  Limiting the rights of warring parties in terms of how they conduct operations, and their choice of weapons, is also critical.  “This new reality of modern conflict, increasing role of non-State actors and legal loopholes […] hinders the application of international law in many ways,” he said, noting that the complexity of new challenges impedes the process of classifying conflict situations and makes it difficult to determine which rules may be applied.  Current shifts pose questions as to whether the emergence of non-State actors and new means of combat require a revision of international humanitarian law, or whether existing rules are sufficient to frame the new challenges, he said.  In addition, he called attention to the problem of insufficient, or even lack of, accountability for violations, underlining the primary responsibility of States in that arena.

HEIKO MAAS, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany, recalled that thousands of civilians were killed and entire cities destroyed by German soldiers in the final months of the Second World War.  Such crimes led the international community to proclaim “never again” and to adopt the Geneva Conventions — among humanity’s greatest achievements.  Today those agreements remain the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, upheld by brave humanitarian actors around the globe, he said.  “While they do their jobs, we need to ask ourselves:  Are we really doing ours?”  Humanitarian issues feature regularly on the Council’s agenda and humanitarian crises are multiplying around the globe, he said.  Indeed, the Council meets time and time again, even as people continue to die.  Citing new and deadly challenges in conflict situations, he noted that hospitals and schools have now become targets.

“We are failing the most vulnerable,” he stressed, noting that Council members, in particular, are failing to live up to their legal and ethical obligations and must take action.  While Member States might not agree on the political elements of crises, “we must bridge our differences” when human lives are at stake, he said, underlining that perpetrators of international crimes must know that their actions will not go unpunished.  In that regard, the goal of humanitarian diplomacy must be to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law, as German forces are actively doing in Mali and other conflict zones in which they are deployed.  Calling for concrete action “today, not tomorrow”, he said the Geneva Conventions are a “sign of hope” whose implementation remains a core duty for all nations.

ZHANG JUN (China) said traditional and non-traditional security threats are intertwined, and armed conflicts increasingly protracted.  Emphasizing that Governments and parties to conflict must fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law, said Governments have primary responsibility in that regard, adding that the conduct of parties in disputed areas should be governed by international humanitarian law.  Any violation should be investigated and punished, he stressed.  Urging the international community to help Member States strengthen their capacity to implement their obligations, he said humanitarian agencies should engage in training, providing technical support and sharing of experience to ensure implementation of international humanitarian law, while ensuring respecting for the principle of sovereignty, he said.  The development of cyber technology and artificial intelligence, as well as the frequency of international armed conflict, all pose challenges, he added.  The Council should tackle the underlying causes of conflict, he said, describing prevention, reduction and peaceful settlement of disputes as best practices in upholding international humanitarian law.  China was among the first to accede to the Geneva Conventions and has taken measures to strengthen its related domestic legislation while carrying out education in international humanitarian law, he added.

KAREN PIERCE (United Kingdom) noted that her country published its first voluntary report on the implementation of international humanitarian law in March.  Turning a spotlight on areas in which the international humanitarian situation is dire, she pointed first to Ukraine, citing the difficulties faced by its citizens in Crimea.  In South Sudan, justice, truth and reconciliation are fundamental to ensuring transitional justice, while in Mali and the Sahel region, there are reports of armed militia, terrorist groups and regional forces alike violating international humanitarian law, she said.  However, it is in Syria that violations of international humanitarian law have reached a nadir, with people subjected to arbitrary detention, driven from their homes in Aleppo, and suffering the use of weapons of mass destruction in that area.  As those displaced from Aleppo join people in Idlib in witnessing the bombing of their schools and hospitals, there are no answers from the Syrian authorities as to why they have done so, or why they have not given due warning, as demanded by the Geneva Conventions.  Stressing the individual and personal responsibility of commanders on the ground to uphold international humanitarian law, she said they will be held accountable for violations that might amount to war crimes.  The United Kingdom has provided £2.8 billion ($3 billion) in response to the Syrian crisis, its single largest contribution, she noted.  With more than 400,000 people dead, 6.2 million fleeing their homes and 5.6 million taking refuge in neighbouring countries, it is clear that an end to the conflict cannot come too soon, she added.  Noting the conflict’s increasingly complex aspects, she said there are more non-State actors, and that of the 20 largest recipients of humanitarian aid countries, 17 countries have been receiving it for eight consecutive years.  “It is clear we need more action,” she reiterated.

JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa), speaking also on behalf of the two other African members (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea), said they are disturbed by reports that some parties to conflict have resorted to recruiting children and to other serious actions that the international community must address urgently.  Citing current conflict-related trends in Africa, such as mass displacement and attacks targeting civilians, he emphasized the need to respect humanitarian norms.  As for the Council, it must prioritize unfettered access for humanitarian workers, he stressed.  The best way to ensure respect for humanitarian norms and end the suffering of civilians and vulnerable persons is to prevent armed conflict through inclusive dialogue and other critical mechanisms, he said, underlining the crucial importance of ensuring accountability for violations.  The goal is to strengthen and enhance respect for international humanitarian law, he stressed.

MANSOUR AYYAD SH. A. ALOTAIBI (Kuwait) recalled that the United Nations was formed in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War, yet civilian suffering has nevertheless continued in the subsequent decades.  The Geneva Conventions were widely ratified but are both ignored and neglected today, as witnessed in Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in the case of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, he noted.  The Council plays a crucial role in upholding and consolidating the rule of law, he said, emphasizing the particular importance of protecting civilians and ensuring compliance by parties on the ground.  Meanwhile, it is vital to ensure accountability for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, and to hold those responsible for attacks against civilians accountable.  Sanctions — when used transparently and effectively — can serve as an important tool in that regard, he said.  States, meanwhile, should look beyond national priorities and work together in upholding their obligations under international law, he said, urging permanent Council members to refrain from wielding their veto in cases of humanitarian need, while using their influence to ensure respect for international humanitarian law on the part of belligerents.

JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said today’s meeting provides a chance to commemorate some of the international community’s most important instruments while addressing the Council’s role in ensuring their implementation.  “We must think about the principal challenges that we collectively face,” he emphasized, citing non-compliance with international norms and its unacceptable impact on civilians as critical issues.  Women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to international violations, and failure to meet their needs can lead to feelings of resentment and ultimately to violence, he cautioned.  States as well as regional and international organizations must bolster their capacity to prevent or resolve conflict by peaceful means, and those who commit atrocities must be held accountable, he said, while underlining the need to improve training and awareness among all military staff.  Women and minorities serving in their ranks can serve as agents of change, he added.

ANNE GUEGUEN (France) said the Geneva Conventions are too often flouted today, with some parties to conflict going as far as to include violations in their military strategies.  In other cases, international law is violated as part of national counter-terrorism efforts, she noted, emphasizing that such strategies are unacceptable.  Humanitarian and medical personnel must be fully protected, as “you do not fire on an ambulance”, she added.  Pointing out that France incorporates international humanitarian law in all its military operations from the earliest planning phases, she said it is also included when training the country’s partners.  “The rise of artificial intelligence should not move any of the red lines set out in international humanitarian law,” she stressed.  Instead, it should help parties better respect those rules in the conflicts of tomorrow.  Underlining the importance of countering impunity, she called for universal accession to and ratification of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute.  Welcoming the new WHO database of attacks against medical staff and infrastructure, she went on to advocate the creation of a commission of inquiry into attacks recently committed against medical facilities in north-western Syria, locations identified and shared as part of the United Nations deconfliction mechanism.

KAREN VAN VLIERBERGE (Belgium) said the Geneva Conventions are essential to the international legal framework for protecting civilians during armed conflict.  Whereas the rules of international humanitarian law are increasingly flouted, they remain more relevant than ever, with simple and practical principles adapted to the main elements of warfare, she said.  “It is not a matter of rewriting the Conventions but, rather, redoubling efforts to ensure they are respected,” she emphasized, calling for dissemination of international humanitarian law among all actors, and for the inclusion in school curricula of the principles at its heart as a way to anchor a culture of humanity.  Advocating instruction on international humanitarian law for military forces, she stressed that national authorities must also apply its principles in times of peace, with national humanitarian law commissions cracking down on those in violation of the rules.  Belgium is committed to safe, sustainable and unhindered humanitarian access in Syria, and to the specific protection of children, she affirmed.  Stressing that no counter-terrorism measures should hinder the work of humanitarian organizations, she announced that Belgium and the European Union will hold a high-level event on the impact of counter-terrorism measures in the humanitarian sphere in the margins of the General Assembly’s general debate.

JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said representatives from around the world gathered in Geneva seven decades ago to change the way in which war was waged.  The resulting Geneva Conventions enshrined the new rules, playing a significant role in shaping the behaviour of parties on the battlefield and strengthening protections, he said.  Since then, new technologies have emerged, allowing for more deadly force while terrorist groups like Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Qaida abide by no such rules.  Yet the Geneva Conventions are a powerful articulation of international humanitarian law and have become synonymous with ethical behaviour.  Noting that States have several tools for addressing violations, including war crimes tribunals supported by the United States in Cambodia, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, he said there have been obstacles to accountability in other cases.  While States and parties to conflict are responsible for their own adherence to international humanitarian law, all actors must call out violations, he said, stressing that the United States will continue to push for greater compliance with the Geneva Conventions, and supports dissemination of accurate information on international humanitarian law.  Citing the training provided to his country’s military personnel and their partners, notably troop- and police-contributing countries in regional peace operations, he said the United States will continue to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions, and called upon all States and the parties they support to hold violators accountable.

DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) recalled that in November 2018, ICRC and the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States gathered in Saint Petersburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration, which established the prohibition of inhumane weaponry.  Recalling also the history behind the creation of the Geneva Conventions, he said Germany eschewed the norms of international humanitarian law existing at the time, bombing peaceful towns.  Adolf Hitler pushed a policy of scorched earth, mass deportations and collective punishment aimed at reducing populations living in occupied territories, he said, adding that starvation was used widely as a tactic of war.  The treatment of war prisoners was particularly cynical, especially since applicable international obligations existed at the time.

He went on to state that Germany’s mass gross violations were a feature of the Nuremburg trials, where the defenders of the war criminals advanced the idea that the laws were outdated.  Defendants referred to the absence of prohibitions relating to civilians and raised the question of strengthening international legal protections for victims.  A diplomatic conference was then convened, resulting in the Geneva Conventions, he said.  Following their adoption, the emergence of national liberation wars and the requirement to uphold human rights were factors that dictated the need to codify international humanitarian law, with Protocols I and II established in 1977, he recalled.  The 1949 conference’s final resolution affirmed that the gathering was “inspired solely by humanitarian aims” and sought to ensure that Governments would never have to apply the Geneva Conventions to war victims, but rather, would settle their differences through dialogue, he said, adding that those words are relevant today.

He went on to stress that, time and again, the Security Council is forced to pay attention to the institutions of international humanitarian law.  The nature of war has changed, with internal armed conflicts dominating the landscape.  Selective approaches and double standards now impact the authority of international humanitarian law, in turn prompting debate around the grounds on which parties must uphold international humanitarian law.  In such conditions, many are tempted to hype the violations of some while “hushing up” the crimes of others, he noted, underlining that the norms of international humanitarian law must not be used for political manipulations.  Objecting to comments by the United Kingdom’s representative, he clarified that there is no armed conflict in the Russian territory of Crimea.  He also pointed out that Syria is not a topic for today’s discussion, while recalling the many questions put to the United Kingdom’s delegation about breaches of international humanitarian law beyond the Euphrates River that have not received any answers.  He urged all States to adhere strictly to international humanitarian law, noting that many of today’s problems are the result of reluctance to implement it in practice.

DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said the Council’s concerted efforts are, and should always be, focused on the application of international law.  Underlining the need to address the root causes of conflict and to build trust, he said countries must end the flow of weapons around the globe, and the Council must send a message to non-State actors that they are not above the law.  States that are unable to provide protection to civilians must be assisted in that regard, he added, outlining some of Indonesia’s related regional efforts.  Describing the Geneva Conventions as living documents, he stressed the need to adapt their implementation to present-day realities.

GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) said the validity and defence of the international order is of critical importance today.  Complete respect for, and compliance with, international humanitarian law represents the minimum standard for parties in conflict situations, he added.  The Geneva Conventions constitute the cornerstone of civilian protection in armed conflict and represent a fundamental tool for the Council’s work.  Expressing concern that reality on the ground often strays far from the discourse on such matters, he called for the protection of humanitarian actors, saying international law also demands the strengthening of access to justice and efforts to combat impunity as a method of deterrence.  As a troop-contributing country, Peru assigns the highest importance to training its troops on international humanitarian law and has established a national institute to study such issues, he said.  The Council, for its part, should focus on joint action to protect civilians in situations appearing on its agenda.

For information media. Not an official record.