As we are all sadly aware, armed conflicts create victims: women, children, the elderly, forcibly displaced, wounded, sick and detained. All of them have, and deserve, protection and assistance under the various instruments of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
But the fate of these victims is directly linked to the willingness, determination and capacity of states to stand by their obligations to 'respect and ensure respect' for IHL in all circumstances, and of all parties to any conflict to abide by their humanitarian obligations.
To have and ratify treaties is necessary, but to respect their obligations is indispensable. The fundamental humanitarian treaties, the Geneva Conventions, are universally ratified and there has been constant development taking place since 1949. This movement has dramatically accelerated over recent years. More than ever, humanitarian concerns are high on the multilateral agenda, and the way conflicts are conducted has become the subject of the nightly news.
At the same time we continue to witness, throughout the world, violations of IHL. It is the essence of a state's obligation so that civilians are not attacked, prohibited weapons not used, nor any weapon used indiscriminately, and to ensure that national laws deal with the prevention of such acts, and failing this, their punishment.
IHL, while limited to armed conflict, nevertheless covers much legal ground within that limitation. It includes not only protection for the wounded and sick in armed conflict, but also addresses matters such as the protection of-and assistance to? prisoners of war, civilian internees, child soldiers. It also deals with the environment, cultural property, weapons restrictions and prohibitions, and war crimes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would encourage states in the region to review those treaties to which they are not yet a party and, hopefully, to consider accession to them. Most IHL treaties require
legislative steps to be taken to ensure that these international obligations are reflected in domestic law. This is most important for dualist states, including those with a common law tradition, which normally require legislation prior to the direct applicability of the treaties.
South Asia is a part of the world whose general importance as well as IHL-relevance is growing. This region of Asia currently contributes over one-third of the world's military and police deployed in peacekeeping operations under United Nations auspices. Thus, it is essential that South Asian countries also be leaders in the implementation of IHL, in order to ensure that it is respected whenever applicable.
South Asia itself continues to be affected by armed conflicts. Thankfully, Nepal has seen an end to its non-international armed conflict, and is developing the institutions and legal framework necessary to build a
democratic state based on the rule of law, both national and international law.
It is most fitting that Nepal should be hosting this week the First South Asian Conference on IHL in view of the democratic transition currently under way following 10 years of armed conflict. Indeed, Nepal has had the sad privilege of knowing what an armed conflict is and it is appropriate that it should now take a key role in the dissemination of the laws of armed conflict.
South Asia has proud humanitarian traditions. Rules on protecting civilians and combatants date back thousands of years. While IHL treaty accession and implementation rates are somewhat low in this region when compared to other parts of the world, the ICRC hopes that this will increase as a result of events such the IHL conference in Kathmandu.
Dr Jacques Moreillon is the vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This piece was adapted from his keynote address to the First South Asian IHL Conference in Kathmandu on Tuesday.