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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Armies question rules of war in modern day conflict, says Red Cross chief

Peter Maurer says some are questioning why they should respect the law when adversaries do not

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Dr Mohammed Al Kamali, general director of the Institute of Training and Judicial Studies, speak at a panel during the Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Antonie Robertson / The National
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Dr Mohammed Al Kamali, general director of the Institute of Training and Judicial Studies, speak at a panel during the Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Antonie Robertson / The National

Conventional armies fighting in the Middle East are asking why they should follow the rules when their enemies do not, military officers meeting in Abu Dhabi heard on Wednesday.

Respect for humanitarian law is increasingly being questioned on the battlefield, the penultimate day of the Senior Workshop on International Rules Governing Military Operations was told.

About 120 high-ranking officers from more than 80 countries gathered in the capital for the event, which was convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

They are discussing the rules of war, the rise of autonomous weapons and protecting civilians caught in the crossfire.

The committee is an international group that tries to protect the Geneva Conventions, defend the victims of armed conflict and promote humanitarian law.

Red Cross President Peter Maurer said this questioning of the rules of war was related to unconventional warfare that featured gangs and secret service agencies and the fight against terrorism.

“The conversations I have are worrisome because we get questions such as: ‘Why should I respect the law when my adversary is a terrorist and does not respect the principles of humanity?’” Mr Maurer said.

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“It has been visible in arguments that the ICRC has with belligerents in the Middle East. We must develop counter arguments.”

The debate on Wednesday focused on an updated Red Cross study called The Roots of Restraint in War.

This examines how the rules of war are applied in a time when conflicts are becoming more complex, politicised and technological.

Signatories to the Geneva Conventions, including the UAE, agree to implement humanitarian law but there is no global regulatory body to ensure that these rules are followed.

Compounding this is the ­array of irregulars involved in modern-day conflicts, such as criminal gangs, non-state armies and heavily armed secret service groups.

“This again increases the challenge of implementing law. Who is responsible?” Mr Maurer asked. “States have been reluctant to hand over sovereignty to any sort of independent body to adjudicate. The question is a political one.”

The Red Cross committee does not provide evidence about those who break humanitarian law because it tries to gain the trust of all sides. Instead it focuses on developing “humanitarian spaces”.

“Negotiating that space, such as an exchange of detainees or to protect the population, very much needs to be done through front-line negotiations. It counters arguments this space is available to only one side or the other,” he said.

“Law should not be followed because of a fear of prison but because it is the right thing to do.”

The panel also heard from Mohammed Al Kamali, general director of Abu Dhabi’s Institute of Training and Judicial Studies.

“Ignorance of law results in suffering,” Mr Al Kamali said. “The UAE is committed to implementing international humanitarian law.”

This week, the Red Cross said new Geneva Conventions could be needed to deal with the rise of robot and cyber warfare.

Yahia Alibi, head of the regional delegation for the GCC, said there was no international treaty governing autonomous weapons