In this podcast listen to an excerpt from the talk given by John Ging (UNRWA Gaza) in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth on 26 March 2009.

This excerpt combines three segements from the question and answer element of the talk.

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Protecting civilians during conflict

John Ging is the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza. In his lecture, entitled The responsibility to protect civilians during conflict’, Ging focused on the need for all parties to any conflict – along with the whole international community – to advocate for, nuture and respect the rule of law.

2009 Trcaire’s Lenten campaign

This year, Trcaire’s Lenten campaign is about people who have been forced from home by war. 26 million people have had to abandon their homes because of conflict to seek safety elsewhere within their country. According to Mike Williams, head of Trcaire’s international department,

“the grim reality is that civilians now account for the overwhelming majority of casualties in times of conflict. This impact is not an unfortunate consequence of war – civilians are being specifically targeted, which takes a devastating toll on life and on livelihoods. The Geneva Conventions, which celebrate their 60th anniversary this year is an international legal framework designed to protect civilians during times of war. However the impact of violence on civilians is increasing. It begs the question: why is the gap between the theory and the practice so wide?”

“Protecting civilians in times of conflict has always been a core focus of Trcaire’s work. We need to continue to challenge ourselves, and our partners, like the Irish Government, to be more effective in this arena. During this Lenten campaign we ask what we in Ireland can do to narrow the gap between the law and the practice to ensure civilians don’t bear the brunt of war,” said Mike.

Trcaire is currently spending approximately 10m in Somalia, Darfur, Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to provide food, shelter, healthcare, training and education for vulnerable communities. The work also supports those who have been driven from their homes to return when things are safe and start to earn a living again.

Trcaire is also campaigning at a political level, highlighting the gap between the law and the practice when it comes to protecting civilians.

The Savaging of Humanitarian Law

In his remarks at the Trcaire lecture, John Ging referred to this op-ed peice by Bernard Kouchner(French Foreign Minister) and stated that he intended to use this text in human rights education programmes the UN run in Gaza.

International Herald Tribune January 29, 2009

‘Modern” war disgusts us in the tragic consequences it has for civilians.

How could we not be horrified at the sight of bodies, atrociously maimed or burned ; the bodies of women, men and children lying in the smoking ruins of their homes, in hospitals unable to cope that have become simply places to die, absent sufficient drugs and equipment ?

Unfortunately, such atrocities are to be seen in many places around the world, usually with relative indifference – the paradoxical outcome of the way in which the media have made violence an everyday event.

Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Gaza : this depressing litany of conflicts with their multitude of innocent civilian victims swept away by the storms of war must not however leave us indifferent.

The international community – and in particular France and the European Union, for which human rights are a core value, the very foundation of their sense of identity – cannot stand silently by in the face of such a situation.

In a period of armed conflict there is in fact a body of rules and principles that all parties to the conflict must obey : international humanitarian law.

That body of law, which has been largely built up since World War II, derives mainly from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols.

While the International Committee of the Red Cross is the statutory guardian of those standards, all states parties to the conventions must not only obey them but also ensure that they are obeyed by the parties in an armed conflict.

What that means is that the international community has a special responsibility in ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law.

Indeed, one of the essential principles of international humanitarian law is that a distinction must be made at all times and in all circumstances between combatants and non-combatants, along with its corollary : a distinction between military targets and civilian targets, the latter to be protected. There are few conflicts in which that principle is fully respected.

In northeastern Sri Lanka, 230,000 civilians have been caught up in the fighting. The Tamil Tigers are accused by all NGOs of refusing to allow civilians to flee the war zone.

During the Israeli offensive in Gaza, there were several strikes in areas apparently devoid of any identifiable military target, and in particular that of Dec. 27, which hit the Gaza Training College, and the series of bombardments on Jan. 6 aimed at schools run by UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees).

Hamas also is responsible for violations of international humanitarian law, in part by firing rockets which were not aimed at military targets, but clearly intended to terrorize civilians in southern Israel.

Moreover, both Israel and Hamas have used weapons that have indiscriminate effects, since aerial bombing and mortar fire were not used in such a manner as to spare civilians. Yet the prohibition of the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects is another key principle of international humanitarian law.

The tragedy to which we have been witness in recent weeks is unfortunately not an isolated instance. Far too many armed conflicts ravage other parts of the world, from Sri Lanka to Darfur, from Somalia to Iraq, each with its funeral procession of massacred innocents. In each case the parties commit grave breaches of international humanitarian law, and in some cases mass atrocities punishable by international criminal justice.

Access is impeded to humanitarian aid and aid workers, plunging civilians into total destitution and depriving them of the most basic medical treatment. Children, some less than 10 years old, are enlisted as soldiers as well as sex slaves.

In various conflicts, rape is increasingly being used in a systematic, planned and large-scale manner ; in short, it is used as a genuine weapon of war, whether in the Kivus or in Sudan, with almost total impunity. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a woman is raped every 30 minutes ; 30,000 were raped in the Kivus in the first half of 2007.

In the face of situations in which civilians are deliberately targeted, the maintenance and the restoration of peace are constant challenges.

France is engaged in numerous peacekeeping operations under UN mandates. The purpose of several of them – first and foremost the European Union operation in eastern Chad and north-eastern Central African Republic – is to provide protection to innocent civilians.

Such protection must involve first and foremost a guarantee of adherence to the principles of international humanitarian law in armed conflict and the inclusion of the issues surrounding the protection of civilians in mandates for peacekeeping operations.

I am convinced that compliance with international humanitarian law must be made the subject of depoliticized discussions at the United Nations, since such compliance is the duty of all, irrespective of the legitimacy of the military action undertaken by a specific state or armed group.

That is why I have asked France’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York to mobilize our partners on this matter. An initial meeting will be held in the coming days with a view to organizing a debate in the weeks to come.

What is at stake here is the credibility of the United Nations, and of the Security Council in particular, as the guardian of international peace and security.

Bernard Kouchner is the foreign minister of France.