10 facts about human rights during war

10 facts about human rights during war

  • The main rule

The basic principle of modern international humanitarian law was set by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his treatise “The Social Contract” in 1762. This principle is the following: the war is not a relationship between people, but a relationship between countries, and people become enemies by chance, not as human beings and not even as citizens, but as soldiers. And one can fight with soldiers only as long as they are fighting, but when they lay down their arms they become ordinary people and it is prohibited to kill them.

  • The first military contract

The first known agreement between the commanders of the opposing armies, as well including provisions on the protection of the civilian population, was signed in 1393 between the cantons of Switzerland. In particular it contained provisions prohibiting the participation of women and children in the war, and the items on the inviolability of the wounded, respect for their personality and property. In the period from 1581 to 1864 more than 290 of similar agreements were signed between the warring parties.

  • Protection of local population

The issue of protecting local population during wars was raised globally only in 1864: in the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded and Sick in Armies in the Field. This document establishes that the locals who helped the wounded shall be inviolable and remain free; that wounded soldiers serve guards to those who admitted them to their homes; that locals who have hosted wounded are exempt from military residents and a certain part of war reparations.

  • Power of one man

In June of 1859 a Swiss businessman witnessed the Battle of Solferino – the largest battle Second Italian War of Independence. About 40,000 soldiers were killed or left to die on the battlefield just during one day. Henry Dunant (that was the name of the businessman) was so shocked by the almost complete absence of medical aid to the wounded, that he left all his affairs and devoted himself to the wounded. Later he wrote a book about what he saw, sent it to political leaders of Europe, and in 1863 organized the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. In 1876 it was renamed into the International Committee of the Red Cross.

  • Prisoners of conscience

In 1960, British lawyer Peter Benenson came across an article about two Portuguese students who were sentenced to seven years in prison for raising a toast to freedom. The subsequent article of Benenson “The Forgotten Prisoners” has received a huge response and marked the beginning of the “Appeal for Amnesty 1961″. One year later, the movement became an international non-governmental organization Amnesty International. This organization later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the United Nations Prize in the field of human rights.

  • Declaration of war

According to the Third Hague Convention of 1907, hostilities between countries must not commence without previous and explicit warning, in the form either of a reasoned declaration of war or of an ultimatum with conditional declaration of war. But since 1945, when the United Nations Charter was adopted, the threat or use of force in international conflicts was prohibited, thus the declaration of war became, in fact, an atavism of international relations. Today, international law should be applied even in the event when hostilities were actually initiated without a declaration of war.

  • Self-defense 

After 1945 the threat or use of force is allowed under the UN Charter only two cases: in the situation of individual or collective self-defense and the use of force by the decision of the UN Security Council. It is important to emphasize that the right of individual or collective self-defense arises in case of an armed attack on a member of the United Nations and until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.

  • Status as a combatant and prisoner of war

Combatants are protected by international treaties and conventions and have the right to use weapons. Among the combatants are not only the personnel of the armed forces of a party to the conflict, but also members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces and directly involved in military actions. Combatants who were captured, are entitled to status of prisoners of war, they are not considered criminals, retain their citizenship, should not be punished for running away.

  • Mercenaries and spies

In accordance with the rules of international humanitarian law, mercenaries and spies do not get the status of combatant or prisoner of war, that is, they may be subject to criminal prosecution. Unlike spy, a scout of the armed forces of a party to the conflict shall not be considered as a spy if wearing the uniform of his/her armed forces. Thus, in case of capture a scout is entitled to prisoner of war status.

  • Civilians 

The civilian population is protected by a number of international conventions, but there are also some limitations. For example, civilians cannot be prisoners of war and have no right to take prisoners. However, if the civilians are taking part in hostilities, they lose their status and relying protection. Guerrillas and volunteer corps that are carrying arms openly, and the population of non-occupied territory, which spontaneously takes up arms at the approach of the enemy, shall not be considered civilians.

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