Thursday, December 10, 2019 — President Obama stressed the importance of the Geneva Conventions during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on Thursday, supporting the notion that in the barbarity of war, there must be basic protections for vulnerable men, women and children.
U.S. Prisoner of war, reunited with his wife, holds Red Cross Messages.
Credit: American Red Cross.
“Even as we make difficult decisions about going to war, we must also think clearly about how we fight it,” Obama stated.
“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct,” he continued. “And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.”
The 1949 Geneva Conventions are the foundation of international humanitarian law, which aims to preserve a minimum of humanity in the worst of circumstances. The Conventions address how combatants must treat civilians, the wounded, the sick and prisoners of war during armed conflict. They also give the red cross symbol its protective status in war.
The Conventions are a pragmatic body of law and have been adopted by every nation in the world. They accept that wars do exist, and make no judgment about whether a specific war is legal or not. Military commanders must balance their objectives to defeat the enemy with protections for those that do not take a direct role in hostilities.
“…I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard,” said President Obama.
His comments echoed remarks by US Ambassador Susan Rice, while observing the sixtieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions this year.
“We embrace the Geneva Conventions because it is the right thing to do. We embrace them because hard experience has taught us that we are safer and stronger when we do. And we embrace them because we honor the legal obligations we undertake,” she said.
Proven by Experience
The current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not the first test of the Geneva Conventions.
Department of Defense legal expert W. Hays Parks Parks has invoked the shocking My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, when American soldiers under the command of Lieutenant William Calley executed Vietnamese civilians.
“When people ask me if the Geneva Conventions work, I point them to this example,” Parks said. “What did we gain [by targeting civilians]? Absolutely nothing. It’s not the way we’ve fought before or since.”
Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, a Dean at the Military Academy at West Point, has also stated why the United States supports the Conventions. Torture is not only ineffective, but counterproductive. He noted that captured jihadists have indicated that they were motivated by photos from Abu Ghraib.
According to Ambassador Rice, “…the conflict we are waging today in Afghanistan, and the struggle against extremists and terrorists more broadly, make [the Conventions] more relevant and more important. This conflict is not about winning territory, but about winning the confidence and respect of a population.”
Teaching the Next Generation of Leaders
President Obama’s speech also invoked Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross and a driving force for the first Geneva Convention in 1864.
For more than 20 years, the American Red Cross has educated the American public about the principles of international humanitarian law through courses at local Red Cross chapters. The Red Cross also promotes the Exploring Humanitarian Law curriculum for high schools. Its adaptable resources give high school teachers easy-to-use information to bring alive lessons about human life and dignity.
“Our actions are an example to the youth of America that we are prepared to honor the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” said Ambassador Rice.
An online petition through Causes on Facebook has received more than 19,000 signatures in support of teaching Exploring Humanitarian Law in high schools.
Learn more, and download free lesson plans, by visiting www.redcross.org/ehl.
You can help the victims of countless crises around the world each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, which will provide immediate relief and long-term support through supplies, technical assistance and other support to help those in need. Donations to the International Response Fund can be sent to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013 or made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish) or online at www.redcross.org.