18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The spirit of lawBy Dahlia Hammouda
In unison with international celebrations, a regional Arab conference marking the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions was held in Cairo under the auspices of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak. These conventions -- which are central to international humanitarian law -- are the most important international instruments to defend human dignity in war.
The conference, hosted by the Ministry of Justice at the Cairo Sheraton Hotel from 14 to 16 November, was attended, among others, by Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid, Minister of Justice Farouk Seif El-Nasr and heads of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, in addition to Arab foreign ministers and ambassadors.
In a keynote address at the conference's opening session, Mrs Mubarak highlighted the fact that the two basic pillars upon which the international legislative framework is based are the principles of human rights as set by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rules of international humanitarian law, established by the four Geneva Conventions a year later.
"It has become clear that the international order now revolves around the human being; his freedom and how to protect it in times of peace; and his life and how to protect it in times of war or civil strife," Mrs Mubarak said.
Indeed, international humanitarian law and international human rights law are complementary. International rules on the protection of human rights oblige states to recognise and respect a number of basic rights of the individual. Humanitarian law does the same in times of armed conflict. It enjoins the parties to a conflict to respect and preserve the lives and dignity of captured enemy soldiers or of civilians, and restricts the means of warfare employed.
On the eve of the 21st century, this anniversary is more than simply a commemoration. "This conference is an opportunity to exchange ideas on our objective evaluations of human circumstances in the world around us during the past half century, as well as on our hopes and ambitions at the threshold of a new century and a third millennium," Mrs Mubarak said.
Although great expectations were pinned on the lofty principles of these conventions by the international community, international law sometimes failed to coerce aggressors to abide by its rules. "Receding collective will to punish offenders and the inadequacy of the role of the present international order, coupled with increasing tendencies to use double standards in dealing with present day conflicts, have led to a number of recent human tragedies," Mrs Mubarak pointed out.
Contemporary humanitarian law has evolved in stages, all too often after the events for which they were sorely needed. In 1949 the international community responded to the tragic events of World War II by revising the conventions then in force and adopting a new instrument: the Four Geneva Conventions. Today, practically all states are party to the 1949 conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977.
But, are legal rules alone able to cope with the real problems caused by armed conflicts? "Modern human societies need 'the spirit of international law', not just written rules," Mrs Mubarak said. "The honest will of the parties to the conventions to uphold their principles is the only real measure to ensure implementation. The international community is in need of a modern interpretation of justice, as well as strong faith in peace and a real desire to coexist peacefully. The human side of international agreements will always be the most fundamental dimension."
"Governments, international agencies and civil institutions must work to spread the 'culture of peace' and 'spirit of tolerance', so it becomes a spontaneous behaviour emanating from society and not forced upon it," she said.
Mrs Mubarak praised the role of the International Red Cross in warding off and alleviating human pain, in protecting the life and health of individuals in hard times and in respecting humanity and its basic rights. She also hailed the United Nations and its specialised agencies for their genuine efforts to help families and victims.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, as custodian of the Geneva Conventions, plays a role as a neutral intermediary between the parties to a conflict to ensure respect for humanitarian law.
One organisation alone, however, cannot deal with the multiple issues raised by wars. "Civil action, through various organisations and societies, has transcended national and geographical borders and succeeded in playing a major role in protection, rescue and rehabilitation operations," Mrs Mubarak said.
"This region [the Middle East] witnessed all forms of suffering and all the sacrifices of war, until peace came about through Egypt's initiative. This country knows that without peace, there can be no development, no cooperation between people and no building of a future in which people can live freely and honourably," she said.