The 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions today (12 August) is a good time to reflect on what is needed to ensure international law keeps up to date with the changing world, Associate Professor Steven Freeland told Lawyers Weekly.
Freeland, an expert in international law at the University of Western Sydney, said that while the Geneva Conventions were incredibly important, nation states needed to stay vigilant in ensuring the law covered internal conflicts, new methods of fighting wars and the development of weapons.
"It's a good time to reflect on what else we need to do to try to limit - ideally prohibit, but if we can't prohibit, limit - the dire consequences of conflict. The sad thing is that there are probably more conflicts going on in the world now than ever in the history of humankind, but a lot of them are different types," he said.
"A lot of them are internal conflicts and the Geneva Conventions and protocols are not particularly strong dealing with internal conflicts - a conflict within a country - for all sorts of reasons. But mainly because, traditionally, states protect their sovereignty and they tend to say 'Internal conflicts are none of your business, they're our sovereign right', and so we have to recognise that [for] atrocities committed in internal conflict, there is no reason to say they are less in breach of law than ones committed in traditional conflicts."
The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols regulate conduct of armed conflict and specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities, including civilians, health workers and aid workers and those no longer participating in hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war.
The total number of states party to the Geneva Conventions is 194.
Freeland said the events of World War II had made it clear that rules that governed armed conflicts were unsatisfactory and insufficient.
"The Geneva Conventions are very widely ratified ... so they are universally recognised. So they were significant in and of themselves by codifying existing law, by strengthening the law, by adding new principles, by being widely and universally recognised, by raising the consciousness of the world to the need to protect innocent people and prisoners of wars and civilians during conflicts," he said.
"But events in the last 60 years have shown that, although they are extremely important, these laws regulating conflict themselves need to be upgraded."
- Sarah Sharples