Stronger Respect for International Humanitarian Law: NGO Action Needed!


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

14 Jul 2023 – The carnage in the Ukraine armed conflict and the continued violent actions by ethnic militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo have highlighted the fact that the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are not bedside reading for many people, even those engaged in war.  There are warlords whose only claim to the charisma of leadership is the ruthlessness with which they wield a gun.

Since the adoption of the First Geneva Convention on International Humanitarian Law in 1864, the nature of armed conflicts has changed considerably, especially  in the increased number of conflicts within a State.  It is currently estimated that there are 120 ethnic militias active in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, often responsible for cruel and degrading treatment of civilians.

I had participated in an International Committee of the Red Cross study group during the Nigeria/Biafra War (1967-1970).  The aim of the study group was to see if there were traditional African values and practices which could be relied upon for better treatment of war prisoners and civilians.  There were no such practices.  Traditionally, men were killed, and women divided among the victors.  The only exceptions were conflicts within a clan. In clan conflicts, there were techniques of symbolic or material restitution and ceremonies of reconciliation.  Thus our study group had recommended the need for clear universal standards which can be applied in all cultures and in all types of conflicts. However, the cultural situation needs to be taken into consideration.  I had helped in writing a handbook on International Humanitarian Law to be used in Africa.  The handbook was published by the Henri Dunant Institute in Geneva.

Nevertheless, there are always problems in the application of International Humanitarian Law.  Many people do not know that it exists and that they are bound by its norms.  Thus there is a need for greater dissemination of information through education and training  to create a climate conducive to the observation of internationally recognized norms.  Such educational and training activities can be usefully undertaken by non-governmental organizations – an urgent need.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Jul 2023.

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