Thank you for inviting me to speak at this commemoration marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Geneva Conventions. And what two better organizations to join with in marking this milestone: the American Red Cross and the Law Library of Congress.
I want to begin by saying as simply as possible: The United States will support and advance international humanitarian law – both as a matter of national policy and as a basic precept for the entire international community. We embrace the Geneva Conventions because it is the right thing to do. We embrace them because hard experience has taught us that we are safer and stronger when we do. And we embrace them because we honor the legal obligations we undertake.
When I look back on the framers of the Conventions, I see them first and foremost as pragmatists. They had just been through the most terrible war in all of human history. They had seen extermination camps, mass rape, slave labor, and the executions of POWs. They knew the full horror of what war can bring about. And they had no illusions that war itself could be abolished. On the contrary, they saw the potential in those early days of the Cold War of a conflict even more destructive than the one they had just endured. They believed that before the next war was fought, the world urgently needed a set of rules to spare civilians from its devastation. They understood that more than ever before in history, we needed the discipline of such a code to wage war without losing our humanity.
Many wars have indeed been fought since 1949. The Geneva Conventions have obviously not prevented the many tragedies and atrocities those wars have wrought. But the existence of the Geneva Convention rules has often stayed the hand of warring parties and saved innocent lives. The code of conduct they established has brought humane treatment and due care to prisoners of war. It spurred the design of military technologies so as to avoid civilian suffering. And it has helped us to mobilize pressure against those who violate it.
In recent years, some have called the Geneva Conventions outdated as we face an enemy that is loyal to no state, that hides among civilians, and that routinely violates the laws our own forces are obliged to uphold. However, for all the enormity of al-Qaeda’s deadly ambitions, the challenge we face today has its own unfortunate tradition. The framers of the Conventions were perfectly familiar with terrorism, albeit of a different sort.
If anything, the conflict we are waging today in Afghanistan, and the struggle against violent extremists and terrorists more broadly, make the Geneva Conventions even more relevant and important. This conflict is not about winning territory but about winning the confidence and respect of a population. That requires distinguishing civilians from combatants and protecting them from violence. As the commander of our forces in Afghanistan has said, while “civilian protection is a legal and moral issue, it [also] is an overarching operational issue – [a] clear-eyed recognition that loss of popular support will be decisive to either side in this struggle.”
Our enemies may reject the values embodied in the Geneva Conventions. But that is just the point. Our insistence on distinguishing civilians from combatants is what distinguishes us from our enemies. So does our rejection of torture and cruelty. These are values from which our men and women in uniform draw strength and pride, and they help define what we stand for as a nation. And we are well served by our military lawyers who ensure that we live up to these rules every day, drawing on fundamental values and fortitude that go all the way back to 1775. As Senator McCain so rightly said when he challenged the Congress to reject torture, this is not about who our enemies are – “it is about who we are.”
The rules we embrace create a playing field on which those who take hostages, or send truck bombs into apartment buildings, or rockets into civilian neighborhoods, have no legitimacy. They favor the way we and other democratic countries are already pledged to fight, not the way our enemies fight. They are morally right in and of themselves, but they also give us a great advantage.
That’s why, in his inaugural address, President Obama rejected the false choice between our security and our values. It’s why in his first week in office he signed Executive Orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, to end without question the use of torture, and to ensure America’s compliance with the Geneva Conventions. We also deeply value our continuing, confidential dialogue with the International Committee of the Red Cross on and off the battlefield, and we welcome its advice on how we can do better.
By taking these steps, we are in a stronger position to challenge other nations and groups to uphold international humanitarian law, and to marshal opposition to those who do not. We are also in a better position to support the extraordinarily important work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement around the world, including its support for and protection of civilians in crisis zones like Darfur and Sri Lanka. Finally, we are also able to better support the indispensable work of the American Red Cross, which introduces the concepts of international humanitarian law through its Exploring Humanitarian Law program to schools and universities around the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. Our actions are an example to the youth of America that we are prepared to honor the principles of the Geneva Conventions.
In closing, I want to thank the American Red Cross for the invaluable work you do every day in disaster and danger zones in the United States and around the world. And I want to thank the Law Library of Congress for promoting dialogue and scholarship on these very important issues.
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