President celebrates the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Convention in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross

Thu 24th Oct, 2019 | 14:15
location: (Dublin) Mansion House

(Dublin) Mansion House

Thursday, 24th October, 2019

Speech at an event marking the 70th Anniversary of Geneva Conventions

Mansion House, Dublin, Thursday 24th October 2019

What ties together the ancient Brehon laws, the work of the Irish Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions is a belief in the irreducible dignity for which humanity stands, a symbol of the desire of societies to protect the innocent, uphold justice and live according to an established code of conduct.

A chairde,

Tá áthas an domhain orm a bheith anseo libh go léir agus muid ag ceiliúradh 70 bliain Coinbhinsiún na Ginéive. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Liam O’Dwyer, Ard-Rúnaí Chumann Croise Deirge na hÉireann agus an cathaoirleach, Pat Carey as ucht an cuireadh dom labhairt libh inniu.

May I welcome members of the International Committee of the Red Cross to today’s event, and I wish also to take this opportunity to congratulate the Irish Red Cross for its 80th anniversary which it celebrated recently.

Comhghairdeas libh.

As we gather today to commemorate the Geneva Conventions, I am sure it strikes you as participants in humanitarian action as much as it 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.

It has been so clear to all that any reading of modern history suggests that the outbreak and recurrence of conflict and security threats can only be prevented by addressing the root causes. This demands political imagination, moral courage, peer-reviewed independent research, financial commitment, and tireless determination. It also demands that the debate and our path forward must not be led, influenced or ever determined at any stage, by those with vested interests in the arms race.

We must all collectively have the courage now to ask how we have come to be losing this discourse of peace, and how we have come to accept the inevitabilities of such a connection between ecology, economy and society that has served us so badly and with such destructive consequences, and we must combine our efforts to achieve the alternative – the widespread adoption of a new paradigm of sustained peace and development.

The Geneva Conventions, the 70th anniversary of which we mark today, are generally regarded as the cornerstone of modern international humanitarian law and are recognised as the most important treaties governing the protection of people in armed conflicts. They are among the very few international treaties that have been universally ratified, enshrining the principle, as they do, that even wars must have limits.

The Conventions, comprising four treaties, plus three additional protocols, have extensively defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (both civilians and military personnel), established protections for the wounded and sick, and established safeguards for the civilians in and around a war zone. The treaties of 1949 were ratified, in whole or with reservations, by 196 countries. These are good foundations on which to establish new initiatives to deal with current circumstances.

The history behind the Geneva Conventions is interesting and worth outlining briefly, if I may. A Swiss businessman Henry Dunant went to visit wounded soldiers after the Battle of Solferino in 1859.

He was shocked by the lack of facilities, personnel, and medical aid available to help these soldiers. As a result, he published his book, A Memory of Solferino, in 1862, which outlined the horrors of war. His wartime experiences inspired Dunant to propose a permanent relief agency for humanitarian aid in times of war, one enabled by a government treaty recognising the neutrality of the agency, and allowing such an agency to provide aid in a war zone.

The former proposal led to the establishment of the Red Cross in Geneva. The latter resulted in the 1864 Geneva Convention, the first codified international treaty that covered the sick and wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In August 1866, the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries, as well as the United States, Brazil and Mexico, to attend a diplomatic conference. Sixteen countries sent a total of twenty-six delegates to Geneva. The conference adopted the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. Representatives of 12 nations signed the convention.

Some decades later, inspired by the wave of humanitarian and pacifistic enthusiasm following World War II and the outrage towards the war crimes disclosed by the Nuremberg Trials, a series of conferences were held in 1949 reaffirming, expanding and updating the prior Geneva and Hague Conventions. All of those present would have had the horrors of the Second World War at the forefront of their minds – the unimaginable loss of life, the deprivation and cruelty inflicted upon civilians and, above all, the genocide that was the Holocaust.

Sna blianta roimhe sin nochtadh dú-ghnéithe an cine daonna, nochtadh domhan de shochaithe gan comhbhá dhaonna, gan dáimh. Tháinig na toscairí le chéile sa Ghinéiv ar domhan a bhí ina smionagar, ar domhan a bhí ciaptha ag an Cogadh Fuar. Tháinig siad lé chéile lena dícheall is dúthracht a chaitheamh, lena chinntiú nach dtarlódh a leithead d’uafás arís.

[The preceding years had exposed the very darkest depths to which human nature could descend, in a world in which societies had lost their humanity, their empathy. Those delegates in Geneva met in a shattered world, one under the shadow of the Cold War. However, these delegates met with the steely determination that these horrors could not be repeated.]

The 1949 conference yielded the four distinct Geneva conventions which we commemorate today. The first convention dealt with the treatment of wounded and sick armed forces in the field.
The second convention dealt with the sick, wounded, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea. The third convention dealt with the treatment of prisoners of war during times of conflict.

Finally, the fourth convention dealt with the treatment of civilians and their protection during wartime.

None of this need sound strange to Irish ears, for here in Ireland we can lay claim to a more ancient set of humanitarian accords – the Cáin Adomnáin, sometimes known as the Law of the Innocents – which were agreed at the synod of Birr in 697AD. Promoted by Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, these laws aimed to guarantee the safety and immunity of non-combatants in conflict.

What ties together these ancient Brehon laws, the work of the Irish Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions is a belief in the irreducible dignity for which humanity stands, a symbol of the desire of societies to protect the innocent, uphold justice and live according to an established code of conduct.

This principle of humanity is at the heart of the Geneva Conventions, and they, in turn, have been instrumental in making the world a safer, more secure place for the last seventy years. Thanks to these Conventions, millions of civilians have lived safer, happier lives. We have all benefitted from a more stable, prosperous, peaceful world.

When international humanitarian law is respected, harm to civilians is drastically reduced. 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.

The success of the Geneva Conventions lies in both the ability of combatants to understand them, and the willingness of combatants to adhere to them. Both knowledge and political will are vital; if we lose either element, the Conventions lose their effect. In this regard, the work of the Red Cross Movement has been vital.

I want to pay a special tribute today to the work of the Irish Red Cross. As well as marking the seventieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, we are also celebrating this year 80 years of the Irish Red Cross. During this time, your work has touched the lives of thousands of people, and you have made an extraordinary, positive impact.

I also want to commend the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Your staff work tirelessly around the world, often in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, in order to promote international humanitarian law, and provide protection and assistance to populations in greatest need. Your goals resonate very strongly with those of Ireland, above all the desire to protect the most vulnerable, and reach the furthest behind.

Although warfare has changed dramatically since the Geneva Conventions of 1949 – conflicts have become more protracted, more urban, more fragmented – yet the Conventions are still considered to be the cornerstone of modern international humanitarian law. They protect combatants who find themselves hors de combat, and they protect civilians caught up in the zone of war.

These treaties came into play for all recent international armed conflicts, including the war in Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Chechnya, and the 2008 war in Georgia.

The Geneva Conventions also offer some protection to those affected by non-international armed conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War.

The Geneva Conventions are also important texts for scholars. Educational institutions, including Harvard University, who, together with international organisations such as the Red Cross, use the Geneva Conventions as a primary text investigating torture and warfare.

The delegates who signed the 1949 Conventions did so in a context in which the benefits of multilateralism were broadly understood. These were years that saw the establishment of the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Following the chaos of World War II, there was an appreciation that, in an interconnected world, a rules-based global order was preferable to dominance by physical force or coercion – a world ruled by rights rather than might.

Cearta in ionad neart.

Ireland remains deeply committed to that multilateral order. The challenges we face – whether climate change, displacement, or eradicating poverty and inequality – are global in nature. And it is only by cooperating that we can hope to address them meaningfully and successfully.

However, this commitment to multilateralism is no longer a given. Several states, including some of the most powerful actors globally, are repudiating this multilateral order, pursuing narrow, neo-nationalist agendas. This attitude is as regrettable as it is myopic and ignorant of history. Furthermore, it is eroding the respect of international standards and laws including the Geneva Conventions.

We have witnessed in recent years extremely worrying trends where countries or combatants have flouted the conventions of war, leading to growing extension of humanitarian needs, the suffering of populations, and an erosion of international trust and cooperation.

These violations of the Geneva Conventions persist, often by the most powerful, with recurring incidents of illegal detention of suspects and documented torture, practices that clearly contravene the accords in the third and fourth Geneva Conventions. Violations of international law are never acceptable. May I say this very clearly: we must condemn such violations whenever and wherever they occur, and we must redouble our efforts to prevent them.

Caithfidh muid cosc a chur ar na feillbhearta seo, caithfidh muid iad a cháineadh.

An additional challenge we face is the change in the nature of conflict and war. Conflicts have become more protracted, more urban, and much more fragmented, particularly over the last decade, all of which creates significant challenges for humanitarian actors.

We know, for instance, that the average length of a humanitarian crisis is now over nine years, according to the World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2018 analysis published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This is an increase from an average length of 5.2 years in 2014.

Furthermore, the United Nations now informs us that one in every 70 people worldwide is caught up in a humanitarian crisis – that equates to 132 million people globally across 42 countries – highlighting the growing scale of the challenge.

More people are being displaced by conflict. The same United Nations analysis indicates that the number of forcibly displaced people rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017.

Crises exacerbate gender inequalities: girls in conflict settings are two-and-a-half times more likely to be missing school than boys.  In just two years between 2015 and 2017, the number of people experiencing crisis-level food insecurity or worse increased from
80 million to 124 million people.

The majority of humanitarian needs occur in long-lasting crises in which there has been limited progress in addressing the root causes. It is paramount that political solutions are now the focus of those actors that can realise positive change.

Conflict will remain the main driver of humanitarian needs in 2019. Food insecurity will remain a major concern, particularly in areas affected by conflict and climate-related hazards.

Yemen is once again the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, while humanitarian needs will remain at exceptionally high levels in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Sudan. Humanitarian needs have also worsened significantly in Afghanistan owing to drought, political instability and an influx of returning refugees, as well as in Cameroon and the Central African Republic due to an upsurge of conflict and violence.

It would be remiss not to express my deep concern, as President of Ireland, at events occurring in northern Syria, and the unilateral intervention by Turkey in that area. The possibility of coercion or forced return of refugees is an appalling one and totally unacceptable.  May I also express, in the strongest terms, how any attempt at demographic change is not acceptable. I urge Turkey to seek an alternative, negotiated approach, one that rejects military intervention and its resulting humanitarian distress.

The fragmentation of conflicts creates significant challenges to those attempting to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law, as combatant groups become more decentralised, more dispersed, and less subject to centralised authority.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has done outstanding work to understand these phenomena, and offer some practical suggestions, and I would strongly support and commend
the Roots of Restraint report it published in June last year. The report investigates how formal and informal norms condition the behaviour of soldiers and fighters depending on the kind of armed organisation to which they belong. Ultimately, it provides a framework of analysis for humanitarian actors to help them identify the approach best suited to a group’s particular structure and socialisation mechanisms, with the aim of promoting restraint during armed conflict.

Investing in conflict prevention is not only financially prudent, it is a matter of moral duty. However, investment should not just be narrowly defined in financial terms; it means dedicating time, resources, intelligence, I beg to repeat, to understanding the root causes of conflict, and preventing their recurrence. A sufficient and effective investment in building peace will not only save lives, it will open all of the possibilities and opportunities for development and human flourishing that come with the dawning of peace and stability, which are so necessary if we are to accomplish the goals of that most remarkable representation of our shared global solidarity, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We will soon mark the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and undertake its tenth review conference. I am proud of Ireland’s role in developing the Treaty, and I reiterate our commitment to a successful Review Conference in 2020.

I hope that this conference will set a level of ambition for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, the only guarantee of our safety. It is for this reason that Ireland is also a strong supporter of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The urban nature of modern conflict is deeply troubling, as it places millions of civilians in the line of fire, or forces them to flee their homes. Ireland is particularly concerned about the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, and will host a conference in Dublin in 2020 with the aim of agreeing a political declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

We must also be conscious of the growing threat posed by climate change, which can have a serious negative impact on livelihoods and resources, resulting in a potential increase in existing tensions, fuelling conflicts and forcing people to migrate, which can add further pressure and exacerbate existing threats.

We are witnessing the emergence of a whole range of new means and methods of warfare – cyber, autonomous aerial vehicles, lethal autonomous weapon systems – all of which raise huge, serious questions about the future of conflict.

We have only begun to work through the implications of what these new technologies will mean for the protection of societies, or for the promotion of international humanitarian law. We remain committed to a dialogue with the Irish Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross on all of these issues.

While the character of armed conflict is constantly changing, with new challenges, the need to reinforce the continued relevance and importance of the Conventions in contemporary warfare is stronger than ever. Yes, we must commemorate the Conventions and the principles and values on which they are based, but we must also reflect on these, to anticipate the next decade and beyond,
ensuring that the international community is well prepared for the new challenges and risks that lie ahead, especially as regards the ongoing undermining of the Conventions by an often powerful minority.

For each of these challenges – the threats to multilateralism, the changing nature of conflict, the emergence of new drivers of conflict, such as climate change, and the emergence of new technologies – we must remain guided by the central, abiding principle of humanity, a shared vulnerability. A commitment to protecting humanity, and upholding the rules of international humanitarian law, is as relevant today, as it was 70 years ago, and Ireland will continue to be champion of your efforts

However, humanitarian actions must not any longer be allowed to serve as sufficient responses to crises that are political in their origins. Humanitarian action is not a substitute for political dialogue and mediation, nor is the courageous work of UN peacekeepers, whose service, including that of many Irish men and women over the past 60 years, whom I salute here today. UN peace support operations save countless lives, but they can only ever be but one element of a comprehensive response.

Commemorating 70 years of the Geneva Conventions is not a celebration of militarism, nor a valorisation of martial spirit, but a simple recognition of our common humanity as we try to provide basic protection for those caught up in armed struggles. We must recognise that with war comes not only physical and mental destruction but an enduring climate of fear, often made all-the-more terrifying by the perverse use of new science and technology and industrial power in the pursuit of mutual destruction.

As we assemble today to mark the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, we do so in a spirit of solidarity and compassion, and we do so in a world still sadly subject to war and the rumours of war, a world that still seems – if I may borrow from the words of Martin Luther King Jr. from another time and another place, “a [world] gone mad on war”, a world in which, more than at any other time, so many people are subject to atrocities, to famine, to starvation, to displacement and exile.

Even as we, in these first decades of the twenty-first century, have the material capacity to abolish all forms of human poverty, to alleviate all unnecessary suffering, we are still devoting so much of our creativity, our intelligence and our resources, not to the preservation or achievement of peace, but to the prosecution of, and preparation for, war.

We must remember, close to home, how easily the powers of Europe, with all their centuries of scholarship, philosophy and learning, cast it all aside and fell into enduring and terrible enmity. We must affirm that solidarity amongst peoples and nations is not only a moral necessity, but that it is fragile and that it must be asserted again and again as our shared aspiration.

Is é an dlúthpháirtíocht ár sprioc choiteann chomh maith leis an tsíocháin.

We must remember that peace will only ever be established, and can only be sustained, when it is based upon the principles of justice, dignity and mutual respect.

Let us then, on this day, re-dedicate ourselves to the cause of peace, and the support of those institutions which promote and preserve the peace. Let us recall the great spirit that animated Europe in the months and years after World War II, the spirit that gave birth to the modern Geneva Conventions and the United Nations.

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.  

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.