Designated Swiss ambassador to US speaks about challenges to humanitarian action

Designated Swiss Ambassador Martin Dahinden speaks during the "Old And New Challenges To Humanitarian Action In Armed Conflicts" lecture in Cabot Auditorium on Sept. 25. Ari Schneider / The Tufts Daily

Martin Dahinden, director general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and designated Swiss ambassador to the United States, presented a lecture yesterday evening, titled “Old And New Challenges To Humanitarian Action In Armed Conflicts.”

Admiral James Stavridis, dean of The Fletcher School, and Andreas Rufer, deputy consul of swissnex Boston, introduced Dahinden, who will be accredited as an ambassador by President Barack Obama  later this year. Rufer’s talk followed a reception for the traveling exhibition “War from the Victims’ Perspective: Photographers by Jean Mohr,” a collection from Swiss photographer Jean Mohr that is currently at The Fletcher School. The lecture was organized in conjunction with the exhibition, which is open until Oct. 5 and commemorates the 150th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

Stavridis noted the power of the photographs in the exhibition, which features photographs from conflict areas in Cyprus, the Middle East and Africa, according to Rufer.

“These photographs are real,” Stavridis said. “They are not shocking, but instead they invite you to consider each one individually and try to understand the story of that photograph, that face.”

Dahinden’s talk began with a history of the ICRC and the story of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman who went on to found the Red Cross after witnessing the carnage that resulted from the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Dahinden noted that Dunant’s description of the violence and suffering “appears strangely familiar,” citing the comparable aftermath from conflicts such as those in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Dunant’s proposal for the founding of the Red Cross also led to the 1864 Geneva Convention, according to Dahinden.

“The convention laid the foundation of present humanitarian law by codifying laws allowing aid to be provided to sick and wounded military personnel,” he said.

The original international laws set forth by the first Geneva Convention have developed over time, he added. Modern warfare has changed much in the past 150 years, and conflicts have become more complex and less clear-cut, according to Dahinden.

“Legal norms became more sophisticated, wider in scope and were adapted to the transformation of warfare,” he said.

Dahinden also noted that the parties involved in conflicts are no longer easily distinguishable, and the theaters of war have moved to more populated areas. Migration and global interconnections also further complicate modern warfare.

“The time is long gone when countries fought each other in clearly demarcated battle fields,” he explained.

Dahinden focused on three primary challenges that international humanitarian action faces today, the first being the increasing lack of distinction between civilians and militants. He said that there have never been as many civilian victims are there are today, noting that hospitals and schools are often no longer considered safe. Dahinden also noted the increasing growth of child soldiers.

“Often the most vulnerable members of the civilian population, such as children, are used as instruments, turning them into soldiers with weapons and uniforms,” he said.

He explained that there are now more legal instruments to protect children, but “we are far from a satisfactory situation.”

A second challenge is that humanitarian workers are also no longer safe. Dahinden noted the number of victims in areas such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Pakistan. Last year 155 humanitarian workers were killed, 171 were wounded and 134 were abducted, according to Dahinden. Traditional emblems of humanitarian workers are often disregarded today.

“In view of the precarious security situation, there are growing demands that humanitarian facilities should be systematically protected by armed security,” he said, but conceded that this would contradict principled humanitarian action.

The final challenge he discussed was the difficulty of intervening in situations of violence not deemed armed conflicts.

“This refers to the innumerable numbers of victims in situations that are not defined as conflicts in international humanitarian law, and yet are marked by a high degree of systemically applied violence,” he said, noting the high rates of violent crime, murder and drug trafficking in Honduras as an example.

Dahinden added that such conflicts may also directly cause migration, primarily to the United States.

“Numerous humanitarian organizations and private initiatives are attempting to find solutions to alleviate the suffering of people in such situations,” he said.

Dahinden also recognized the ultimate limitations of international humanitarian intervention, noting that humanitarian organizations can only do so much.

“We need to recognize that neither humanitarian action nor humanitarian rules can eliminate the root causes of war, conflicts and violence,” he said.

Concluding with a discussion of what Switzerland’s role in humanitarian intervention is, Dahinden noted Switzerland’s unique and primary role in this particular area of international law, in part based on its role in the development of international humanitarian law, its neutrality and the universality of its international relations.

“We bear a special responsibility,” he said. “This is why a commitment to fostering and implementing international humanitarian law and support for humanitarian action are an integral part of Swiss foreign policy. This commitment is deeply rooted in the Swiss political culture, not just among diplomats but among the general population.”

Dahinden said that Switzerland will continue to play an important role in the enforcement and development of international humanitarian law, and will continue its goal to find solutions at an institutional, political and legal level.

“[Switzerland] is constantly seeking opportunities to enhance respect for international law, and is convinced of the efficiency of the constructive and open dialogue of norms and laws that would protect victims of armed conflict,” he said.

Dahinden said that it is important that perpetrators of crimes against humanity, such as those in the current Syrian Civil War, be punished accordingly, but the future of humanitarian law will need to constantly evolve to suit modern times.

“[Humanitarian law’s] long term existence is never certain and constant efforts must be made to safeguard it.”