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Geneva Call launches ‘Their Words’ – a database of humanitarian commitments

November 9, 2012

Yesterday, Geneva Call launched a directory of humanitarian commitments by armed non state actors. There is no doubt that this database will be a unique and invaluable resource for scholars working on issues relating to armed groups and international law.

Contents of the directory

The directory developed by Geneva Call in partnership with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action is called ‘Their Words’ and can be found at www.theirwords.org. It brings together more than 400 humanitarian commitments of armed non State actors on issues such as the protection of civilian populations, the banning of anti-personnel mines, the protection of children in armed children, respect for the Geneva Conventions and many more thematic issues.

The humanitarian commitments exist in many forms: unilateral declarations or statements, internal rules and regulations, and agreements with governments, inter-governmental and humanitarian organizations. Geneva Call is hoping that the database will increase over time and welcomes additional documents for potential inclusion.

Purpose of the directory

According to Geneva Call, the database aims to make available a ‘baseline’ of armed non state actor policies and views on issues related to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). It is also designed to encourage armed non-State actors to make their position on the norms of IHL and IHRL known and to incentivise other armed non-State actors to follow in the footsteps of groups who have already made such commitments.

In its press release announcing the launch of the directory (see here for English and here for French), Geneva Call mentions two specific examples to illustrate the way in which it sees that the directory might be used.

The first is the situation of the non-international armed conflict in Syria. According to Geneva Call, the Syrian rebels are currently considering instituting a code of conduct in the context of their armed struggle. Geneva Call envisages that its directory of humanitarian agreements and commitments might provide the Syrian opposition with examples and advice in this regard.

The second is the peace talks which are currently taking place between Colombia and the FARC. Geneva Call foresees that during the course of these peace talks, humanitarian agreements might be made by the parties or between the parties. It points out that numerous examples of such agreements are available on the database which might contribute to the process.

Search-ability of the directory

The database can be searched by geographical region (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America) and by theme (children in armed conflict, civilians, conduct of hostilities, displaced persons, emblem, fundamental guarantees, 1949 Geneva Conventions, human rights, humanitarian assistance, humanitarian mine action, implementation, IHL, landmines, persons hors de combat, protected persons, protected objects, protected zones, sexual violence, weapons and women).

English is the reference language throughout the database. The documents are all in their original language and are translated into English, unless they were originally in French or Spanish.

Conclusions

Such a searchable centralised directory has been long-needed and there seems little doubt that the ‘Their Words’ site will very quickly become an essential reference point for individuals working in this field.

But a few questions remain in my mind as to how Geneva Call will select material for inclusion. What happens, for example, if an armed non state actor drafts a unilateral commitment which falls short of the standards contained in international humanitarian law or international human rights law? Will such declarations be contained in the database or rejected on the basis that they are not in accordance with international law? The answer is important, especially if the database is aiming to provide actors with a resource that allows them to use agreements made by other groups as a precedent for drafting their own agreements.

The answer to these questions is found in the ‘disclaimer’ which is found on the Their Words site. This reads as follows:

Please note that the documents contained in the database are presented for information purposes only. The publication of these documents does not in any way imply endorsement by Geneva Call or its partners of their content, nor does it purport that the commitments made by ANSAs are compliant with IHL and IHRL, nor that they have been implemented and respected in practice.

Furthermore, the publication of these documents does not imply that their content is in compliance with IHL, only that they deal with topics or themes regulated under IHL and IHRL. Geneva Call did not play a role in the development of these documents and does not play any role in their monitoring or implementation, with the exception of the Deeds of Commitment under Geneva Call. The views expressed in the documents should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the opinion of Geneva Call.

I am not convinced that a disclaimer is the right way to go in this instance, especially in the light of Geneva Call’s stated hope that the directory may be used as a resource for armed groups. The obvious concern is that an armed group might not have resources or knowledge enough to know which agreements comply with IHL or IHRL. As a result, they may use the site as a ‘precedent bank’ and find an agreement which suits them best, without giving due regard to whether the agreement complies with international law. Moreover, they may use the fact that a humanitarian agreement has been signed by another group to try and give their own agreement drafted in similar terms legitimacy, even though neither agreement complies with IHL or IHRL.

Without having had a chance yet to thoroughly review the humanitarian agreements contained on the site it is not possible for me to properly assess the risk of this happening. But one wonders whether a disclaimer by Geneva Call is the right response.  An alternative approach would be for Geneva Call to prepare a short legal commentary to accompany each humanitarian commitment on the site, stating whether it considers it to be compliant with IHL and IHRL norms, or not. If this is not feasible, perhaps a simple colour-coding system could be used which would indicate to users of the site whether the particular humanitarian commitment has Geneva Call’s endorsement on the question of whether or not it complies with IHL or IHRL. ‘Green’ could be yes – ‘Red’ could be no. This would go some way to ensuring that the ‘right’ humanitarian agreements are used as examples by armed non state actors who are using the site to find precedents for their own codes of conduct. Such a system could also point out the instances in which a particular deed of commitment goes beyond the standards necessitated by IHL and IHRL. While this may be desirable from a humanitarian perspective, it may also become problematic if the norms contained therein are unrealistic.

It should also be noted that the commitment of armed groups to humanitarian norms, while a good first step, is no guarantee of their compliance. It might also be valuable for Geneva Call to include any monitoring that has been done of a specific deed of commitment or humanitarian agreement. An example of such a document would be Geneva Call’s report of their mission to the Philippines to investigate allegations of anti-personnel landmine use by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

These comments aside, this a fundamentally important directory which I have no doubt will be invaluable for armed non state actors, governments and scholars of international law. My congratulations go to Geneva Call for all the hard work which has clearly gone into compiling and organizing the collection and building the website!

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