By Sarah Payne
The first ever annual report of armed violence and conflict was launched this week by the Geneva Academy, representing a significant and possibly very controversial account of the changing nature of global conflict and the application of international law.
The 10th December 2013 saw the gathering of diplomats, academics, journalists and students at Geneva’s IHEID for the launch of the Geneva Academy’s War Report 2012: The First Ever Classification of Armed Conflicts under International Humanitarian Law. Following a press conference earlier in the day, the evening session took the form of a panel discussion, with representatives from academia (Graduate Institute professors Andrew Clapham and Keith Krause), journalists (Stéphanie Nebehay and Xavier Colin), as well as representatives from organisations like ‘Human Rights Watch’ and the’ Small Arms Survey’.
The report has been published by the Geneva Academy, a group whose primary focus is the application of international humanitarian law and its implications for civilians, combatants and the international community. The report itself is to be an annual and comprehensive record of global armed violence and conflict, aiming to strengthen the legalities and legitimacies of international humanitarian law, the first of its kind. The scope and ambition of this project is maybe not immediately apparent, but the very interesting, informed and accessible nature of the discussion soon made this clear.
Once an incidence of violence is labelled an ‘armed conflict’, a certain set of laws of war are applied. Also known as international humanitarian law (IHL), these rules seek to limit conflict, protect civilians and regulate the use of warfare technologies, and, if violated, can be prosecuted as war crimes. The application of IHL, however, is very problematic. As the opening speaker Ambassador Valentin Zellweger explained during the conference, IHL legitimises what would be classed as murder under normal circumstances – IHL must therefore only be applied under very specific circumstances and in accordance with international law.
I am not a law student, and have very little knowledge of the intricacies of international law. For me, the most interesting and significant lesson of the War Report was that of the power of the reporting, classification and wording of armed violence and conflicts.
Considered the worst of all crimes against humanity, genocide is defined as the deliberate attempt to eliminate an ethnic, racial or religious group. This is generally seen as more serious and abhorrent than less systemised violence, like, for example, the millions of Russians murdered during Stalin’s Great Terror. Our reaction to violence, then, is complex and nuanced, and not just dependent on the objective human cost or death toll, but by many variable subjective factors such as intention and technology used. Similarly, look at the reaction to the actions of Assad’s regime during the Syrian Uprising – the media uproar and the West’s involvement only really came about after the announcement of the use of chemical weapons. Indeed, residents of the Syrian town of Kafranbel satirised this in an online sketch, pointing out that the war in Syria will continue regardless of technology used. The message at the end states: ‘Death is death, regardless of the way it is done. Assad has killed more than 150,000. Stop him’. The perception of death and violence, then, is as dependent on its reporting and classification as it is its magnitude.
As explained in the conference, in conflicts as classified by the War Report can be armed violences, armed conflicts or wars. They can be internal or international; they can occur for political, revolutionary, religious, criminal and countless other reasons. And while these distinctions are crucial in the application of the appropriate codes and responses to tensions and conflicts, Julie de Rivero of the organisation Human Rights Watch raised a very important point in the meeting – treating these darkest aspects of humanity objectively and theoretically is certainly necessary in understanding them, but we must be very careful not to lose sight of what these facts and figures actually represent – the death and destruction of lives and livelihoods all over the world. Geneva Academy’s War Report will prove to be an invaluable resource in the campaign against present and future global conflict.
The War Report
The War Report 2012 and why international organizations were too scared to write it
The first War Report sets the foundation for clear, regulated interventions during armed conflicts. But what exactly is the War Report? How does it work and how did it come to its existence?
The Report, in shape of a book, it is the first of its kind, defining armed conflicts in over 500 pages using specific criteria and informing where in the world war is waged. What may seem simple at first is actually a sophisticated analysis of one of the most important subjects in International Relations. The Report recognizes armed conflicts around the world and identifies them as such in order to bring neutral and independent aspects of qualification to the international community.
Why qualification is important
The qualification of an armed conflict is extremely decisive for several international organizations like the UN or the ICRC. Its sheer absence over the last decades is completely unimaginable. However, this condition was actually very convenient for states and other international organizations. How come?
Parties in conflict will sometimes try to downplay the fact that there is no armed conflict, or exaggerate the use of force, in order to influence the use of international humanitarian law (aka law of armed conflict). The benefit of downplaying the conflict, means that there can be no international intervention, exaggerating will lead to a situation, where killing the belligerents of the other force would be legal.
An example of a failed qualification is the case of the UK and the IRA in Ireland or Russia with their war in Chechnya. When confronted by the UN, they simply denied the fact of an armed conflict in their backyard. With the War Report one is able to determine from a neutral point of view, whether international interventions can be justified or not.
The long awaited creation
Though the idea of such a report is not exactly new, one of the first to take actions into her hands was Professor Louise Doswald-Beck, a retired professor of international law. She became aware that there were annual reports on the subject of human rights and its violations, but none on the subject of war. Believing that there was something missing, she assembled a group that created the report, in order to define armed conflict and the appliance of law. In fact the reason why international organizations like the ICRC backed away from reports like this in the past was their neutrality. By deciding whether there is an armed conflict or not states could feel defensive and thereby refuse the organizations demand to intervene. So therefore rather than upsetting one party, the ICRCS simply avoided this subject.
Consequences of the report
Even though the report is of controversial nature, it sets a milestone no one ever dealt with a topic like this before in form of a report. The report makes work for international organizations easier but the path to regulated intervention is still a long one.
The Conference where the report was introduced took place on the 10th of December 2013 in the Auditorium Ivan Pictet at the Maison de la Paix. It was kept in a debate style where the Moderator Xavier Colin (journalist) asked several questions to the members of the panel, which included people like Andrew Clapham (Professor at the Graduate Institute), Keith Krause (Programme Director of the Small Arms Survey), Julie de Rivero (Human Rights Watch) and Jürg Lindenmann (Secretary of the IHFFC). The War Report 2012 was published on 5th of December 2013 by the Oxford University Press.
More information on the War Report can be found here.