Wednesday 01 June 2016

Implementing national strategies in today’s world requires a full understanding of international norms for interaction among states. Those norms are not all encompassing or commonly understood but they do affect the ways states consider dealing with problems. Today our region faces strategic challenges that will require complex coordination of national capabilities under the watchful eyes of millions around the world 24 hours each day. Ensuring success at the strategic level requires that all of our decision-makers understand the basics of international law, particularly in times of conflict.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 form the basis for all international laws of conflict and outline the standards for treatment of people during war. The first three treaties defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners, created protections for the wounded and sick, addressed the protection of shipwreck victims and developed rules for handling prisoners of war. All three of these treaties were revised in 1949 after the lessons of the Second World War; their terms were updated to reflect modern war and a fourth area, protection of civilians in the war zone, was added. The Geneva Conventions have been ratified, in whole or in part, by 196 countries.

The conventions focus on human rights in war but they do not address warfare itself or the use of weapons in war; those issues were the subject of the Hague Conventions (First Hague Conference, 1899; Second Hague Conference, 1907), and the bio-chemical warfare Geneva Protocol (1925). All together, the conventions and additional protocols outline the key rules limiting the use of force in war. The one shortfall in this system is enforcement; with the exceptions of the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, no real policing exists for this form of law – only the UN Security Council has real power, when it chooses to use it.

Jus ad bellum (Latin for “right to war”) are criteria to be consulted in order to determine whether entering into war is just. Acceptable conduct during conflict, known by the Latin terms jus in bello, was derived from the Geneva Conventions and other supporting documents; it is quite different in several respects from common domestic legal process. Jus in bello prohibits belligerents from engaging in combat without meeting certain requirements, such as wearing a distinctive uniform or other visible signs, carrying weapons openly, and conducting operations in accordance with recognized norms, including prohibitions on attacking ambulances or hospitals displaying a Red Crescent. Combatants are obliged to make every effort to avoid harming people and property not involved in the war effort, but they are not guilty of a war crime if a bomb mistakenly hits a residential area. By the same token, combatants that intentionally use protected people or property as human shields are guilty of violations and are responsible for harming those who should be protected. Technically, jus in bello is binding not only upon states but also upon individuals.

These norms have real world impact. The nations participating in the conflict in Yemen have made every effort to meet the best available standard in the use of force. The coalition states supporting UNSCR 2216 have an obligation to limit the destruction in Yemen and take any measures necessary to restore the peace; all member nations of the UN share this responsibility and should do whatever practical to aid in the return of stability to Yemen. On the other hand, the Houthis violated the practice of jus in bello through actions in excess of military necessity and without ensuring distinction between combatants and innocent people. These violations of international norms credibly justify efforts by the coalition to restore order and return the legitimate government to Yemen. With the crisis in Yemen still ongoing and future operations likely in Syria, the UAE will certainly be faced with challenges that will stress our commitment to global norms, so ensuring that all of us understand those rules while maintaining emphasis on our national objectives merits attention. International law can help clarify global norms of behavior; managing international operations in concert with such norms can be challenging but will also greatly increase the influence of the UAE, particularly when it shares common approaches with other countries. Managing the use of force during international conflict will remain an important skill for strategic leaders in the decades to come.