This year’s national observance of International Humanitarian Law Day celebrates the milestone 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.
The Conventions became the core of International Humanitarian Law. They were crafted in the aftermath of the Second World War, which quickly followed the First. It came to the same conclusion: the only progress modern times had brought was faster, slicker, more destructive weapons—yet longer wars without the slightest diminution in cruelty and with far greater toll in civilian lives.
Between the wars, someone made the still compelling argument that the only possible amelioration lay in more extensive use of poison gas. It was quicker; it did its work from a distance and therefore involved less personal cruelty and sadistic pleasure on the part of the perpetrators; less degradation and suffering for their victims.
Since then it’s gotten worse—the Vietnam War, napalm and Agent Orange; the Central American counter-insurgency wars involving the decimation of poor peasants; the still ongoing post-colonial African World War; and of course the Middle Eastern holocaust—where little Yazidi Christian girls were matter-of-factly burned in iron cages, for failing to show pleasure at being gang-raped by smelly jihadi. Indeed, throughout the past 70 years, the world saw suffering on a scale and with such sadistic cruelty unseen since Tamerlane and Hitler.
Civilians continue to bear the brunt of war, with estimates of civilians killed or crippled varying between 50 percent and up to 90 percent of casualties.
Oddly, comparatively fewer soldiers are getting killed; and yet that’s equally their job as killing. Protective armor is now standard uniform, reserved only for those with the means to kill; resolutely denied those powerless to stop them. Even the precision of drone warfare has not spared the innocent from hitherto unimaginable terrors that have driven them crazy beyond cure, studies show.
The good news is there are no more baffling 19th century dynastic entanglements and secret alliances with their clockwork precise and unalterable railroad schedules to war. Some of that survived into the Cold War in mutual defense agreements, not all of them well-known. But outside the nuclear powers, armed conflicts have become simpler to start, near impossible to contain, harder than ever to end—and really easier to understand: it is us or them; better them than us; forget trying to reason with them. They’ll listen to one reason only: our submission to their abuses.
One thing that’s stayed the same is the balance of mutual destruction. This has kept nuclear states well-protected and at peace because… well, mutual destruction…. There will never be war among China, the US and Russia; though plenty around them just like in the Cold War.
The only novelty is the presence of violent non-state actors which are—for all deadly intents, purposes and means—the same as states but with more wherewithal to hurt. It is harder for states to tax for defense than it is for non-state actors to traffic drugs, weapons and people for aggression. Their aim is to erase the legitimacy of states by demonstrably defeating the defining role of states: their first and foremost obligation to protect the innocent against the guilty, the law-abiding against the lawless; forcing publics, as in Latin America, to choose only between criminal syndicates which are for all practical purposes terrorist non-state actors. A world without states is like a world without string: chaos.
There have been no significant advances in weaponry except perhaps speed, volume and firepower. And again, the countries that account for these advances do not suffer from them: it is the countries that cannot account for these advances that are the victims. The rich make the weapons deadlier, and, thanks to economies of scale, more plentiful and cheaper. So it behooves the makers to go for volume.
The great German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained this at the last Munich Security Conference. She complained of US demands that the European Union share the burden of European defense that the US alone has been carrying. But that, she said, means we must build a European defense industry. And that means we must be allowed to sell arms abroad because domestic demand is quickly filled and never depleted—there will never again be a war in Europe. And Bosnia is out of their system: been there, done that; there were pluses and minuses; let’s move on. There are other ways of ethnic cleansing.
It is in this context that it behooves the international community—weapons making and selling states, and their victims together—to share the responsibility of keeping the spirit of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions alive. Especially in the Age of Terror when those conventions are observed at great peril to public safety; yet not observing them discredits states and makes the case for terrorism. But in general, the problem is this: the weapons making and selling states are never blamed by international civil society because it is composed mostly of people who come from those states, and the selling states are so impregnable they need not resort to extraordinary measures of social control. So the blame is persistently laid squarely on the weak countries of the victims whose governments are their customers.
The IHL theme for this year, “Protecting the Defenseless in Times of Armed Conflict”, is especially apt given the true facts. The defenseless can’t afford body armor, which is included as a bonus for those who can afford the modern weaponry to use against the defenseless. I refer especially to vulnerable sectors—women and children—the sexual diversion of combatants; mayhem is not an easy job. And of course persons with disabilities who are good for target practice—I mean, the choice is the crutch or an M-16 or Kalashnikov.
So it was only logical in the circumstances for the IHL Ad Hoc Committee to prioritize the need to keep the latter alive and unharmed. It would be odd if soldiers on any side—and that includes non-state actors with state capabilities were to be included in the Committee’s concerns. But don’t hold your breath: murderers are humans, too; and they have rights like due process. That’s why I had to get us out of the ICC pronto. That woman was on a roll.
On the part of the Philippine Government, the commitment to international humanitarian law is well-established in history; although this sterling record has been cast in the shade, and is today disparaged by those who are—either actually on the payroll of non-state actors or should be, for the great service they render to protect them and advance their interests. For all intents and brutal purposes, criminal organizations from ISIS to Sinaloa are state actors with state capabilities and often far more financial resources and everything money can buy. Governments had to napalm tens of thousands of acres of Mexican poppy fields and it still hasn’t stopped the steady narcotization and increasing anarchy of Mexico and the Central American states. Hence the Wall but with wide open gateways to the US market as mandated by NAFTA.
Our own city of Marawi fell to one such group when it was attempted to serve a warrant on its leader for drug trafficking. It took our boys 6 months to take back Marawi in door to door fighting. To be sure, we left the city looking like Swiss Cheese but, hey, how else? It took the entire Western Alliance 6 years to take back Raqqa—they flattened it.
Time and again I’ve said at the UN: the best protection of human rights—which today are mostly violated by non-state actors with more wherewithal than states—lies in materially and legally empowering legitimate states, members of the United Nations no less, to protect the law-abiding, and to defeat the lawless by any means necessary to achieve that purpose. In desperate circumstances, one might understandably be tempted to adopt the means employed by non-state actors.
It is silly to pretend those means are not used by the most advanced states whose civil societies denounce those means only when availed of by lesser states in desperation. On top of which, advanced states can apply unconventional means with more precision and therefore circumspection.
And then of course there’s legislation. Indeed, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Philippine Act on Crimes against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity. Early this year—guess what?—a member of the Maute-ISIS terrorist group was convicted in court of violations of IHL, which underscores our effective enforcement of international humanitarian domestic law.
In recognition of our country’s responsibility to lay the foundation for future generations to reap the dividends of humanitarianism… No, not peace but humanitarianism; keeping the peace is out of our hands; it’s in the hands of those who break the peace. In that recognition, the DFA, together with the IHL Ad Hoc Committee, has embarked on an infomercial project in the hope—against all experience— that what past generations never learned, the millennial generation will understand and take to heart. I believe that. The young, if kept away from the old who recruit child soldiers, are better than us.
We sincerely thank the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Swiss Embassy, Silver Machine Digital Communications, and Star Magic, including a national heartthrob, Piolo Pascual, for their support in the production of this infomercial.
In closing, let us remember that peace is out of the hands of peacemakers; it is entirely in the hands of lawbreakers who have attained a level of organization far superior to poor states like mine. But what lies with us, what is within our self-control, is decency. How we fight, how we protect, how we defeat our enemies with arms when we are attacked with arms; with the truth when we are attacked with lies; always and ever—constitutions mandate—with victory in mind and heart, refusing anything less; and whatever else needs doing. But let us do it with decency. This is not to be confused with misplaced compassion; but just decency. We recognize it as what we don’t see in our enemies. Decency is not a utopian ideal. It’s been practice for past 138 years by the International Red Cross.
We will fight when we must; we should not hesitate. Delay grows the evil threatened. Talk is useless with those deafened by the sound of their own gunfire. But it lies with us—in the most difficult and perilous tasks and times ahead—to always…always…be decent…toward our fellow human beings; especially the weakest among them.
For it is they who most deserve—they who have the greatest claim on us to protect them. There is no obligation to protect the strong; There is a morally and therefore rationally compelling duty to risk our safety and lives—we who are able to save them. Therein lies the highest nobility of people. No greater love than to give one’s life for the helpless. Thank you.
Remarks of Hon. Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the 2019 International Humanitarian Law Day, September 9, 2019
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