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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

'Unconventional' warfare posing serious challenges to basic rights, says Red Cross official

Sophie Barbey, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross' mission in the UAE, said "unconventional” conflicts posed serious challenges to humanitarian principles

An International Red Cross worker stands above the rubble of a destroyed building in Douma in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 5, 2018. AFP
An International Red Cross worker stands above the rubble of a destroyed building in Douma in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 5, 2018. AFP

The right to live in peace without fear of violence or repression is increasingly under threat across the globe, a senior official at the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned.

Sophie Barbey, head of the ICRC’s mission in the UAE, said a series of new and “unconventional” conflicts posed serious challenges to fundamental humanitarian principles.

Speaking at the International Humanitarian Law conference in Abu Dhabi on Monday, Ms Barbey cautioned that cyberwar, political polarisation and technological advances on the battlefield were compounding the problem.

This made it harder to enforce the rules of the Geneva Convention because it was difficult to establish who was in charge of what, she said.

“I’m worried,” she told The National, on the sidelines of the conference. “We all have the right to dignity. [What about a] child who was a soldier or had been detained by armed forces - what’s the future for them? It is very sad.”

Sophie Barbey, head of the ICRC mission in the UAE. Victor Besa / The National 
Sophie Barbey, head of the ICRC mission in the UAE. Victor Besa / The National

The two-day event was convened by the ICRC and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Dozens of legal experts, humanitarian officers, conflict analysts and UAE government representatives will discuss the relevance of the Geneva Convention, the rise of artificial intelligence and the challenges of implementing law in a world where all parties are questioning the rules.

We are here to affirm the benefits of respecting international humanitarian law.

Sophie Barbey, head of the ICRC’s mission in the UAE

Wars in Iraq and Syria have killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced even more and left men, women and children trying to rebuild their shattered lives. Many of the conflicts today are also taking place in urban environments and lasting longer.

“Take Mosul,” said Ms Barbey, of the Iraqi city that has endured years of war. “There are generations of children which have not been able to go to school. There are families where parents have been separated and where people have been detained or killed.

“People are dying of diseases which are curable. Access to work has vanished and they are unable to feed their family. It is an endless pattern and has a huge psychological effect for society,” she said.

The legacy of the Geneva Convention will also be discussed at the conference. The treaty, of which the UAE is a signatory, turns 70 this August. The convention was signed in 1949 in the aftermath of the Second World War and it ushered in basic principles such as treating prisoners of war humanely, safeguarding medical staff and protecting civilians. The ICRC is known as the guardian of the conventions and works with states to implement its rules in the field. But the swift rise of artificial intelligence and robot warfare has left the international community struggling to agree on new rules governing their use.

Ms Barbey said the convention needed to evolve to take account of these rapid changes. “Definitely we are challenged,” she said. “But we are here to affirm the benefits of respecting international humanitarian law and show the cost of violating it for civilian people.”

It is not the first time that experts have called for an update to the convention. Last October, Yahia Alibi, head of the ICRC’s regional delegation for the GCC, said a new agreement could be required to tackle the unrestricted rise of autonomous weapons.

“It is a huge challenge facing international humanitarian law,” he said at the time. “Autonomous weapons raise fears that humans could lose control and this would go against the basic requirements of law, such as accountability.”

Ms Barbey started to work for the ICRC in 2001 has more than a decade of fieldwork in Africa, the Middle East and Asia behind her. She said there is no way to describe how it feels to see people suffering.

“When you are in front of people who are doing their best to survive, there is no word you can say.”

The conference concludes on Tuesday.

Updated: April 9, 2019 12:16 PM

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