Catching up with reality: The Geneva Conventions, 70 years on

The 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IC), taking place in Geneva from 9-12 December 2019, will bring together different components of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the State Parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and numerous observers to discuss key matters of humanitarian concern and to make joint commitments. The first part of a two-part blog series on this year’s IC offers a brief overview of the process of the conference, the discussions that will be held, as well as the main outcomes to be expected. 

What is this Conference all about?

The 33rd International Conference revolves around three themes. 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which form the backbone of today’s international humanitarian law (IHL). But like most areas of international law, there are still gaps in its practical implementation, giving rise to a first thematic cornerstone of the Conference.

Secondly, today’s changing realities and new global trends also pose a challenge to IHL, including new technologies, climate change and urbanisation.

The last thematic focus lies on the reaffirmation of trust in humanitarian action amidst nowaday’s declining trust in institutions.

These topics will be addressed in several different formats aiming at different outcomes. In the Conference Commission, participants are encouraged to participate in deep and lively debates on emerging needs. Parallelly, a number of decisions among conference members are taken in the form of resolutions – adopted by consensus – in the drafting committee. Several concrete resolutions are proposed already in advance. This year, these include resolutions on better implementation of IHL, disaster laws, restoring family links, mental health, epi- and pandemics as well as women and leadership.

In addition to the resolutions, participants are urged to make voluntary commitments, known as ‘pledges’, including particular actions that they will take to address the humanitarian needs in their national or regional contexts. A system of voluntary reporting will then request participants to report back on the status of the implementation of the resolutions adopted and the pledges made. Finally, side events are held outside of the formal agenda of the Conference to provide participants an opportunity to share their experiences on a number of humanitarian concerns.

Why should we care about yet another multilateral conference in Geneva?

In the maze of conferences, events, formal and informal meetings that compose International Geneva, what makes this particular Conference matter is, firstly, its unusual composition. In fact, it brings together different kinds of actors both during plenary sessions, as well as in smaller working groups, notably the Commissions. Secondly, the ICs are given a different thematic focus every four years, which allows a response to the changing needs of humanitarian action and IHL. Lastly, the four-year “break” between two ICs leaves a considerable time frame for the outcomes of previous ICs to be thoroughly evaluated and reported on in the meantime.

What kinds of outcomes can we expect?

The resolutions that were drawn up during the 32nd International Conference (2015) have been thoroughly evaluated in a mid-term review and will be presented in the form of a progress report at the 33rd IC. However, the language in these resolutions is predominantly soft: States are merely “recommended”, “invited”, “called upon” to take action, which remains voluntary.

For example, Switzerland has long acted as a partner to the ICRC in driving IHL and its implementation forward. Backed by resolution 2 of the 32nd IC, Switzerland undertook an intergovernmental process aimed at strengthening the implementation of IHL. In this process, Swiss delegations undertook consultations with their foreign counterparts and held a number of formal meetings in order to try and find a consensus among States on how to concretely strengthen the implementation of IHL. However, the initiative came to the conclusion that “the time was not ripe for reaching a consensual agreement (…) among States”. According to the Swiss foreign ministry, the process has been brought to a “soft landing”. The main conclusion of the process is merely framed as an absence of opposition: “at no point (…) were views expressed that working towards a better application of IHL is irrelevant or unimportant”. The Swiss foreign ministry states that the process nevertheless inspired many ideas on strengthening respect for IHL.

Thus, the results of the ICs are hard to pin down. But the “softer” outcomes shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, the ICs are a unique opportunity for NGOs, States and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement to network, exchange, and build partnerships, as the Swiss initiative has shown. Certainly, the progress and sustainability of IHL and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement would not be the same without the ICs. For the upcoming 33rd IC, let us hope that the muted success of previous initiatives does not stand in the way of building new and ambitious goals – and that the Swiss foreign ministry upholds its traditional role as facilitator for such ambitions.

Image by the author.