Thematic Program: Arms, Conflict and International Humanitarian Law

by Andrea Holley


For those who want to address human rights issues in the context of arms, conflict and international law in their communities and globally, the following films are suggested:

Promises (2001, 106 min., closed captioned)
Israeli and Palestinian children meet under occupation.

Bombies (2001, 57 min., closed captioned)
Efforts to remove 90 million cluster bombs illegally dropped by the U.S. in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Calling the Ghosts (1996, 33 min., closed captioned)
Rape and torture as acts of war; Muslin and Croat women speak before UN tribunal.

Arms, Conflict and International Humanitarian Law Discussion Program

Human rights activists call upon international humanitarian law (IHL) as much as international human rights law (IHRL) in their advocacy work. IHL consists of four Geneva Conventions and their two additional protocols. These documents are commonly known as the Laws of War. These laws are important tools in the fight to protect and promote human rights in times of armed conflict.

Promises - Yarko and Faraj. Photo: Meagan Shapiro
Promises presents the viewpoints of seven Palestinian and Israeli children. Though living 20 minutes apart, the physical, historical and emotional obstacles between them run deep. Their personal stories offer valuable lessons about the nature of conflict and "identity-based hatred." The political background for the film is complex. In terms of human rights law, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict addresses the concept of occupation and administering to civilians under occupation. Palestinians are civilians living in occupied territories and are thus protected persons, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli army, considered the occupying force, is responsible for protecting certain rights of the civilian population under its control. These rights include access to hospitals in case of injury and protection of their property. The army regularly violates these rights when they create roadblocks that prohibit people from going to hospitals and when they demolish Palestinian houses and displace populations.

At the same time, Israeli officials say that they must prohibit Palestinians' freedom of movement due to concerns about the safety of Israel's own civilian population and the threat of attacks upon them. According to international law, as an occupying force, they have the right to impose certain restrictions on movement due to security concerns. However, groups such as Human Rights Watch have argued that these restrictions were applied arbitrarily and were "not exclusively designed to address security concerns, but [were] also punitive in nature, thus amounting to collective penalties that are proscribed under international law." With a resolution of conflict seeming out of reach, the filmmakers for Promises offer intimate stories of growing up with conflict in hopes of creating a better understanding of the challenges of peacemaking.

Bombies - Laotian boy with cluster bomb
In Bombies we confront the use of cluster bombs and landmines. The Laws of War accept that a state of war exists and that certain measures, including the use of deadly weapons, are necessary. The principle of IHL that relates to the use of arms has to do with targeting and proportionality. By setting limits on the use of said weapons, IHL seeks to limit harm to civilians and the territory in which that conflict is taking place.

IHL forbids targeting civilians and prohibits the use of weapons that cause damage disproportionate to that of the stated military objective. Landmines and cluster bombs violate both these provisions. Civilians are almost exclusively the victims of these types of weapons and their impact far exceeds that of their stated purpose. These weapons "live" for years. The number of deaths resulting from bombies that missed their target or have been lying around for decades is unacceptable by any standard.

While targeting technology is constantly improving, the use of these types of weapons is in violation of IHL and IHRL. There are international campaigns to ban them; numerous countries have documented their destruction in human terms. Increasingly advanced weaponry that is accurate with regard to its targets falls into an evolving area of IHL.

Calling the Ghosts: a Story About Rape, War and Women - Courtesy of Women Make Movies
In Calling the Ghosts, we encounter a situation where civilian women are being targeted by armed forces. Rape as a weapon of war is another evolving area of IHL. Violence is the defining characteristic of armed conflict; sexual violence is a specific form of aggression that has become widespread. Measures to protect civilians include specific provisions for women, children and the elderly. Nonetheless, they continue to be the groups who suffer the most in situations of armed conflict.

When these types of war crimes occur, there is some recourse. In the field of international justice, prosecutions are being led against perpetrators. Examples include the international tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Declaring civilian protection in treaties such as the Geneva Conventions is an important aspect of this process. It must be followed up with punishment for those who disregard these protections and purposely target civilians. For every human right, there must be a remedy when it is violated.



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