The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross is on a mission to defend the Geneva Conventions—the decades-old laws of armed conflict meant to make war more humane, now being spurned by actors as diverse as the so-called Islamic State to U.S. candidates for president.
“‘If ISIS doesn’t behave, why should we behave?’” said ICRC chief Peter Maurer, describing the chorus he hears from some officials he meets—what he sees as a tragic reaction to terrorist brutality. “I have big alarm bells going off.”
From Thursday’s horrific attack on a hospital in Aleppo, to European countries turning away refugees, to Republican candidates musing about bombing terrorist families, Maurer and his team feel under siege.
“What the hell is happening to the world when those who were at the origin of… international humanitarian law start questioning in public debates whether it has any relevance or should be respected?” Maurer said in an interview with The Daily Beast. His language was uncharacteristically blunt for a former Swiss diplomat.
So the International Committee of the Red Cross has launched a campaign, trying to explain to anyone who will listen why the Geneva Conventions matter, ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey in May.
Maurer expressed his frustration with U.S. candidates and international leaders alike during one of his regular visits to Washington, D.C., last week. But the U.S. administration is not his target.
“While there was a moment of questioning these conventions under previous administrations, the latest has been a positive,” he said of working with the Obama White House. “Not least in order to protect the servicemen of the U.S. Army,” he added. The conventions can offer some protection for U.S. soldiers if they are captured by another country’s military, as every country on the planet has signed the Geneva Conventions.
U.S. defense officials say the ICRC has offered them confidential and frank reports that they’ve come to trust on global U.S. military operations, including the operation of detainee facilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the communications.
The Geneva Conventions were first drafted in the late 1800s and updated after World War II, designed to lessen the nightmare of war. Signatories agree to wide-ranging measures from what weaponry is permitted, to allowing access to prisoners of war, to allowing aid to reach civilians.
“You don’t torture people. You don’t indiscriminately attack civilians. You protect as good as you can the impact of your warfare on women and children,” Maurer said, ticking off the tenets he preaches daily. “You treat detainees humanely, because you know the other side will also treat detainees humanely.”
That means no waterboarding, nor indiscriminately “carpet bombing” cities filled with both enemy troops and civilians—practices extolled as possible future policies of Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz respectively.
When Trump made his much-heralded foreign policy speech last week, he repeated his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, but he made no mention of his previous calls to bring back waterboarding or to kill families of ISIS terrorists, both illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would—in a heartbeat,” Trump had said at a rally last fall. In an interview on Fox & Friends, he advocated targeting terrorist families. “You have to take out their families,” he said repeatedly.
Trump later “clarified” such remarks to say he would not violate U.S. laws or treaties nor order his military or intelligence agencies to do that. But he then later clarified that to say the U.S. needs to “expand” laws to get over what he termed “restrictions” limiting a U.S. response to terrorism.
GOP candidate Ted Cruz has said multiple times that he would defeat ISIS by carpet-bombing them “into oblivion,” though the Pentagon has made clear ISIS fighters are ensconced in civilian neighborhoods. So bombing them indiscriminately would kill tens of thousands of civilians—the same way Allied forces leveled Dresden in Germany, or the U.S. leveled Hiroshima in Japan by nuclear bomb in World War II.
None of the comments are helpful, Maurer said.
“This is very dangerous. It’s one thing if a politician in a small country says a little bit of torturing is good to do,” Maurer said. “There is a qualitative difference…when it’s a candidate to run a superpower.”
It’s all the more ironic as the United States technically drafted the precursor to the Geneva Conventions, known as the 1863 Lieber Code regulating armed conflict, commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln to limit the devastation of the U.S. Civil War.
Neither the Trump campaign nor the Cruz campaign responded to requests for comment, nor has Maurer tried to reach either of them.
“We are not interfering in the debates of a democracy in choosing the next leader,” he said.
But he said their widely reported comments are making his job harder, as he circles the globe from international capitals to conflict zones, trying to convince nations at war to put civilians ahead of winning at all costs.
“I can’t tell you how damaging it is when leading politicians question what has been the legal standard,” he said.
Maurer’s job is to meet with leaders like Iraqi Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, explaining why Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq should follow the conventions. Maurer said the Ayatollah agreed to meet him, listened carefully and then issued a religious fatwa to remind Iraqi Shi’ites of the Muslim religious tenets requiring humane warfare.
Conversations with leading Muslim leaders might not go the same way now, in light of U.S. and European politicians’ widely reported comments about Muslims and refugees.
The European community’s treatment of migrants and refugees has been another nightmare that leaves Maurer with little comeback when he tries to encourage developing nations to take in refugees. Why should they do so if even the wealthy nations of Europe that helped draft the Geneva Conventions are refusing entry to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans?
“The perception outside Europe is that the European Union at the first difficulty…is basically throwing the text away,” he said, referring specifically to the 1951 agreement on refugees that is part of the law of armed conflict.
“It leaves me having complicated conversation with the government of Ethiopia or Sudan who tell me, ‘For God’s sake, you come from a nice place called Geneva. Talk about the implementation of the refugee convention with your neighbors!” he said.
The other reason for Maurer’s immediacy in defense of the laws of war: He sees no end in sight for many of the current conflicts.
“Today’s conflicts are long-term, protracted, leading to…system disintegration,” he said, meaning a country is essentially reduced to rubble, with government, medical services, education and even electricity and water systems wiped out.
“It defies the notion of humanitarian relief being short term, for emergencies,” he said. “Emergencies now last for decades.”
The ICRC has had to adapt its mission, sometimes acting almost as a development agency in some parts of the world where no other agency can reach, but it can due to its stringent neutrality.
But the core mission remains delivering aid to besieged innocents, or missives from a detained prisoner to a worried family, and reminding everyone that there are rules for war.
Updated 12:54 p.m. 5/2/15: This story was corrected to note that the first Geneva Convention was drafted in the late 1800s, and the body of law now known as “the Geneva Conventions” went through a major update after WWII.