How – and why – to learn the Rules of War

June 29, 2019. Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. An American Red Cross and Bangladesh Red Crescent team walks across a bamboo bridge in Kutupalong, a displacement camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Since August 2017, more than 700,000 people have fled Rakhine State, Myanmar to seek safety here. Many arrived injured, malnourished, and devastated. They speak of dangerous journeys’ walking days on end to reach the border and losing touch with family members along the way.
The American Red Cross has been working alongside global Red Cross and Red Crescent teams to provide lifesaving aid to the families. Photo by Brad Zerivitz/American Red Cross.

By Gordon Williams

The best-known function of the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program is uniting military families during an emergency. Andrea Sonntag, an SAF specialist in the Red Cross Northwest Region, points to another important function — teaching the rules of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) to the American people.

That is why Sonntag and volunteer Joanne Dufour are offering the region an online Zoom presentation titled “Even War Has Rules.” Anyone can sign up, whether they are affiliated with the Red Cross or not. There is no charge for the program.

“Even War Has Rules” is offered at 1 p.m. Pacific Time on Wednesdays and 11 a.m. PT on Fridays. For a more detailed schedule — and to sign up — email Andrea Sonntag at andrea.sonntag2@redcross.org.

It may be hard to accept the idea that war has rules, given the news coverage of such savage conflicts as the wars in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, but such rules do exist. They were codified in the four Geneva Conventions that were drafted in the years that followed World War II. These conventions set down guidelines on how combatants should treat one another and how non-combatants can be kept safe during wartime. In all, 196 countries — including the United States —have ratified the Geneva Conventions.

The governing body of International Humanitarian Law and the guardian of the rules of war is the International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in 1863 and based in Geneva. The ICRC describes itself as “an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusive humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignities of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance.”   

The ICRC puts itself “at the origin of the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It directs and coordinates the international activities conducted by the Movement in armed conflict and other situations of violence.”

Invitation composed by American Red Cross founder, Clara Barton, inviting important persons to attend a meeting to organize the United States National Society of the Red Cross. 1881
The text reads as follows: “The Red Cross International Convention of Geneva. For the Relief of Suffering by War, Pestilence, Famine, and other Natural Calamities. Clara Barton, American Representative. Washington, D.C., May 19, 1881. A meeting for the purpose of organizing a central National Society of the Red Cross of Geneva will be held at my rooms, No. 1326 I Street N. W., this city, at 7.30 o’clock Saturday evening, 21th inst. Your presence at the meeting to act and co-operate as a member of this Society is greatly desired, and you are hereby cordially invited to be present. Very truly yours, Clara Barton.” American Red Cross Archive.

The rules of war cover a lot of ground. They seek to protect civilians from being targeted and, in fact, say that “every possible care must be taken to avoid harming them or their houses, or destroying their means of survival…”. The rules say medical workers in the battlefield can’t be attacked, that prisoners can’t be tortured or degraded, and that certain weapons (such as poison gas) can’t be used in conflict.

In acknowledgment of its work in enforcing the rules of war, the ICRC has won three Nobel Peace Prizes.

Obviously, there is no hard-and-fast mechanism for forcing nations to abide by the rules of International Humanitarian Law. But violations of the rules of war can bring action from the United Nations, and violators can be brought before international courts. There have been some high-profile trials of war criminals, such as the trials of German leaders after World War II.

Still, as the ICRC itself points out, violations of the rules of war “are still too frequent.” The answer, says Andrea, is to make the rules of war and of IHL as widely known as possible, so that nations that violate the rules will be seen as violators and treated as such. The more people who know the rules of International Humanitarian Law, she says, the greater the moral force that can be directed against nations that violate them.

By the end of the presentation, she says “participants will achieve a general understanding of IHL, and will be better able to evaluate the actions of parties to armed conflict.”

Link to RedCross.org: Humanity in War

The idea to offer the course online originated with Jason Matheney, SAF program manager for the Red Cross Northwest Region, which covers Washington and northern Idaho. He turned the task over to Andrea, a new Red Crosser with an interest in international affairs. A native of Brazil, she has studied international relations at the University of Washington, and previously worked for the International Rescue Committee, an international relief and aid organization. Jason was one of the first to sign up for the presentation.

Andrea joined the Red Cross last January and is based at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), the army-air force base near Tacoma. Headquarters for the regional SAF program is at JBLM.

Each of the Zoom sessions will last about 75 minutes. You can log in with any computer that is programmed for Zoom. Andrea says you could even log in with a smartphone, “But there are some PowerPoint slides that won’t be all that readable on the small screen of a smartphone,” she said.

Right now, the course is virtual. When the lockdown rules are lifted — perhaps in July if all goes well — Andrea hopes to offer it in-person to groups such as schools, social groups and businesses throughout the Red Cross Northwest Region. E-mail Andrea to request such a session at andrea.sonntag2@redcross.org.

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