Issue 71: Special Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention

At the instigation of the Arab League, the Swiss government today convened a meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The stature and effectiveness of international law suffers, when it is selectively applied, and wrongly applied, for political reasons.

Analysis: With the horrors of World War II and the Nazi extermination plan of global Jewry still fresh in the minds of their signatories, the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 were established to protect civilians and wounded in time of war. The reconvening of signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention (on the protection of civilians), for an extraordinary meeting to condemn Israel, sets a dangerous precedent in the politicization of international humanitarian law. Israel is the only state that has ever been targeted for a special reconvening, first on 15 July 1999 and the second time, today. Despite the terrible toll on civilians of conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, and Congo, no attempt was made to hold a meeting on the Fourth Geneva Convention in those cases. Such selective application calls into question the impartiality and genuine humanitarian concerns required of such international instruments.

The Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs has stated clearly why this meeting will take place. In their letter to the High Contracting Parties, the Swiss explain that the meeting will be held “[f]ollowing a request by the States Parties members of the League of Arab States.” The Arab League claims that the High Contracting Parties have the obligation to take action against Israel, because Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention calls on signatories to “respect and ensure respect” for the Convention. This article, however, was intended as a demand that states ensure respect for the Convention by their own agents, not as a principle of relations between states. Jean Pictet, a former official of the International Committee of the Red Cross, explained the term “ensure respect” in the American Journal of International Law as implementation of domestic legislation.

There is no basis in the Fourth Geneva Convention for meetings to examine specific cases. Proponents of the reconvening will argue that there is nothing which prevents such a meeting. They are wrong. The ICRC has taken a clear position on reconvening the High Contracting Parties in its explanation of Article 7 of the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions.  Article 7 states: “The depository of the Protocol shall convene a meeting of the High Contracting Parties, at the request of one or more of the said Parties, to consider general problems concerning the Additional Protocol” (emphasis added). In its comment on the “Object and Purpose of the  Meeting,” the ICRC states, “With the expression ‘general problems’, the Conference wished to exclude the discussion of specific situations” (emphasis added). The possibility of convening the High Contracting Parties for a conference to address a specific situation was clearly related by a previous conference on the Geneva Conventions, whose First Committee specifically approved, by vote, the inclusion of the word “general.”

This meeting marks a step backwards for the rule of law. Those states which chose not to participate in this farce are to be congratulated.