As we all watch the crisis in Ukraine worsen, including the tragic targeting of civilian populations, I wanted to send some resources about how people can help, plus information about the Geneva conventions/international humanitarian law. At the bottom is a link to a great curriculum by the Red Cross to teach middle/high school students about the Geneva conventions/IHL.
Closer to home, we’re monitoring risks of cybersecurity attacks to the U.S., that may be connected to this international crisis. Yesterday the City’s personnel department sent information to help mitigate cyber security threats and we’re also looking at having a tabletop exercise to discuss impacts.
As with natural disasters, it’s always most beneficial to make financial donations to organizations that have connections in the impacted areas since they’re able to purchase and move supplies easier. They also have a better understanding of the specific needs of refugees and survivors. Below are a few of the international organizations helping in Ukraine and surrounding countries assistance refugees. Any of these sites can provide an understanding of the humanitarian crisis and how the non-governmental organization (NGO) community responds.
- Devastation in Ukraine: How the Red Cross is Helping
- Donate to Help Children in Ukraine | Save the Children
- Conflict in Ukraine | Americares
- UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency
- MSF mobilizes response in Ukraine and nearby countries | Doctors Without Borders – USA
- For US citizens in Ukraine: Ukraine – United States Department of State
What is international humanitarian law?
Even in times of war, there are restrictions on whom you can fight and how you can fight them. International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of universal rules which place basic limits on how war is waged. They protect people who are not fighting, like civilians, and people who can no longer fight, like sick and wounded soldiers or those that surrender.
On Aug. 12, 1949, the four Geneva Conventions in their current form came into being. Now adopted by the United States and every other nation, they are the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.
When does IHL apply?
International humanitarian law governs warfare between nations and also applies during non-international armed conflicts, like civil wars. It does not apply to sporadic acts of violence such as riots. The law only applies when a conflict has begun, and then equally to all sides regardless of who started the fighting.
Who does IHL protect?
IHL protects people who are not directly participating in hostilities. This includes women, children, refugees, journalists, Red Cross and other humanitarian aid workers, wounded, shipwrecked, or sick members of the armed forces, prisoners of war, medics, and religious personnel.
What are the basic rules of IHL?
Some of the specific protections provided under IHL include:
- Enemies who surrender or unable to fight cannot be killed or wounded.
- The wounded and sick must be cared for, even if they are from the opposing side.
- All medical personnel and hospitals must be protected.
- Prisoners of war and those detained in relation to a conflict must be respected and protected. They also have the right to communicate with their families and to receive food, shelter and medical care.
- No one can be subjected to torture.
- Civilians and civilian property cannot be the targets of attacks.
- Those protected by the law are entitled to fundamental judicial guarantees.
Are humanitarian law and human rights law different?
International humanitarian law and human rights law are complementary. Both aim to protect the life, health and dignity of individuals.
IHL contains rules that govern the conduct of war and provide protections for the vulnerable, such as civilians and wounded soldiers. These laws only apply in times of war and all parties to a conflict must follow them.
Human rights law applies in peacetime but does not contain any restrictions on how wars can be fought. These laws apply during both war and peace. Moreover, unlike IHL, some human rights can be suspended in times of national emergency.
Is it a violation of IHL if civilians are killed during war?
A major objective of IHL is to protect civilians. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians are to be protected from murder and permitted to lead normal lives, if security allows. The principle of distinction strictly prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians or their property. However, if an attack is on a military target and in line with the military objective, the fact that civilians could also be killed does not necessarily make it unlawful.
How does IHL protect women?
While women have the same general legal protections as men, the Geneva Conventions also recognize that women should benefit from additional protections based on gender differences. As a result, rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault are strictly prohibited.
How does IHL protect children?
The protection of children in wartime is another important part of IHL. In addition to general protections for civilians, children must also be protected against any form of abuse if they fall into the hands of the enemy. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 lay down a series of special protections that recognize the particular vulnerability of children and their needs in armed conflicts.
IHL also prohibits children from taking part in hostilities. It requires that children under age 15 not be recruited into the armed forces, and that “all feasible measures” be taken to ensure that they do not take a direct part in the fighting. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of 18, although children ages 15 to 18 can still join voluntarily.
How is IHL enforced?
Unfortunately, international humanitarian law is not always observed. Sometimes, violations result from a lack of discipline amongst troops. Other times, one side may believe that humanitarian law does not apply to their own actions because the other side is not following the same rules. Yet, humanitarian law is binding in all situations.
All nations are legally obligated to uphold IHL in the midst of war and are required to enact domestic laws to enforce legal sanctions against violators. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is an example of this legislation in the United States.
Legal action against alleged perpetrators of violations of IHL can also take place before an international tribunal, as was the case after World War II and following the conflicts in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The International Criminal Court can also exercise jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in situations where national systems are either unable or unwilling to prosecute alleged perpetrators.
What is Exploring Humanitarian Law?
Youth need to learn about international humanitarian law, as future leaders and policymakers. Learning the rules that govern warfare is essential to understanding the complexities of foreign affairs.
The Red Cross Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) helps middle and high school teachers introduce global humanitarian principles in their classrooms. It offers a customizable set of resources that help students understand the rules governing war and their impact on human life and dignity. Furthermore, it challenges students to investigate real situations and discuss some of the most important humanitarian questions facing us today. Learn more, and download the free toolkit, at www.redcross.org/ehl.
Deputy Director, Emergency Management