August 12, 1949 was when the Philippines signed the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the only universally ratified treaty in the world . This Convention codifies the corpus of international humanitarian law. This is the branch of public international law that applies only to situations of armed conflicts. It seeks to limit the adverse consequences of war for individuals who are not actively taking part in the hostilities. It seeks to achieve this avowed objective by: one, according protections to civilians, the wounded and the sick, humanitarian workers, prisoners of war, and religious leaders; and two, by limiting the means and methods of warfare.
The principle of protection mandates all fighters not to intentionally target protected persons. On the other hand, by highlighting to combatants and fighters that they do not have unfettered discretion on the means and methods of warfare, the law provides for a non-derogable code of conduct applicable to all fighters. For instance, there is the rule that all must fighters must distinguish between individuals with protection and combatants. Under this principle known as that of “distinction,” fighters must at all times desist from targeting protected individuals such as civilians. This is why humanitarian law advocates cry “war crimes” whenever members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines or the Moro International Liberation Front or the New People’s Army target innocent civilians.
Furthermore, the law prescribes that the use of force must always be justified by military necessity. This means that all military strikes must always be for the reason that it will contribute to the military objective: that is, the complete subjugation of the enemy with the least incidental damage possible. This is why the giving of the order to “leave no quarters” or that no survivors should be left is also a war crime. This is because the military objective is only to defeat the enemy and not to kill all adversaries.
There too is the principle of proportionality which tempers the application of the principle of protection. Under this principle, the taking of life and damage to property is not always illegal if it can be shown that its perceived military advantage will outweigh its disadvantages. This, I reckon, is why all countries have agreed to be bound by IHL. For while IHL humanizes warfare, it still recognizes that states have the right to use as much force as is necessary to obtain its military objectives. Because of this rule, not all killings of civilians can be prosecuted as war crimes. Only those that expressly target civilians knowing them as such are punished.
Through an executive order, the month of August has been declared in the Philippines as IHL month to commemorate not just our signature to the Geneva Conventions, but more importantly, to remind all fighters in the country of their legal obligations under the law. Unlike human rights law which originally took the form of binding treaty obligations and therefore are duties of a state, IHL applies to all fighters without distinction. It applies to all officers and men of the AFP, the NPA. The Moro National Liberation Front, the MILF, and now, even to the Bangsamoro Islamic Federation Fighters of Umbra Kato.
This years’ celebration is unique because for the first time, we are celebrating IHL month with a three-in-one: we have passed a new domestic enabling legislation criminalizing breaches and violations of IHL, Republic Act 9851; we have become the 117th member state of the International Criminal Court, a permanent court that tries individuals for war crimes, among others; and we have become the latest state party to Additional Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention. This latest protocol expands the protection of the law to all kinds of civilians. With these developments, we have become the most dedicated country in Asia to the implementation of IHL.
Furthermore, while we have not done away with all armed conflicts in the country, we appear to be making strides in arriving at a peace accord with all insurgents in the country, including the MILF and the NPA. This augers well too for IHL because while compliance with IHL certainly is indispensible in times of armed conflict, there is still no substitute for peace.
While the recent spate of violence waged by Umbra Kato’s BIFF in Maguindanao seems to indicate that long-term peace in Mindanao may take longer than expected, it helps that meanwhile, all Filipinos remain under the protection of IHL.
Happy IHL month to one and all!