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Historical archive

Trygve Lie Symposium: “Reclaiming the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law”

Historical archive

Published under: Stoltenberg's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

International Peace Institute, New York 24 September 2009

- The success and credibility of international norms will be measured by the impact they have on the ground. Our main focus must be on the situation for civilians, and on measures that will effectively strengthen their protection, Foreign Minister Støre said in his speech at the Trygve Lie Symposium in New York on 24 September 2009.

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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

 

I am honoured to welcome you to this year’s Trygve Lie symposium, which will focus on reclaiming the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.

The face of war has changed over the past decades. Increasingly, civilians are caught in the midst of armed conflicts, at the centre of targeted attacks. According to bodies such as the Human Rights Watch, up to 90 per cent of casualties in modern warfare are civilians. They are killed, maimed, raped and abused. The protection of civilians is weakened, and international humanitarian law is being undermined.

International humanitarian law regulating war and conflict was founded on lessons learned from inter-state wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, conflicts and wars are seldom fought on the classic battlefield, but mainly take place in the civilian sphere.

No one will disagree on the obligation to respect international humanitarian law. And no one will argue that civilians are not entitled to protection in armed conflicts. Nevertheless, the reality differs starkly from the established regulations.

In too many conflicts, we are witnessing actual erosion of the protection of civilians. We are witnessing a widening of the definition of “legitimate targets” and a too liberal interpretation of the rule of proportionality. We are witnessing deliberate attacks against civilians, including the use of sexual violence, and armed non-state actors using methods of warfare that run counter to IHL. These developments are unacceptable, and they are a common concern for us all.

The challenge is not to redraft IHL. We have the legal tools – but they must not be left unused in the toolbox. Although there are real challenges, they do not legitimise the undermining of IHL. They do not legitimise the failure to protect civilians in armed conflict.

One of the urgent challenges we must address is how to apply international norms in a new context. We need a broad discussion on how IHL should be interpreted and implemented in the context of modern armed conflicts so that adequate protection for civilians is ensured. We also need to ensure that those responsible for violations of IHL are held accountable and perpetrators stigmatised.

The success and credibility of international norms will be measured by the impact they have on the ground. Our main focus must be on the situation for civilians, and on measures that will effectively strengthen their protection.

This Symposium is of course too short to go into these issues in depth. But I hope we can agree on strengthening our common commitment to reclaim the protection of civilians under international humanitarian law.

I would like to propose that we consider conducting a series of field studies, both on how IHL is in fact applied on the ground, and on the humanitarian and developmental consequences. Important lessons should be learned from the ICRC’s experience in the field, and from states that have made their rules of engagement available to the public. Contributions from other field experts, including from the UN and civil society would also be essential. Lessons learned from such field studies could constitute the basis for further analysis and consideration of new initiatives.

The field studies could be followed up with a series of regional meetings. Such a process could also provide valuable input to the commendable work that is being done on this issue in the Security Council.  As a start, it could be beneficial to organise an international conference to discuss how such a process could be organised – to support the efforts being made elsewhere in the UN system, not replace them. If participants so wish, I would be willing to facilitate such a conference in Oslo.

 

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