Launch of the Sixth Report on the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with International Humanitarian Law – Remarks

Launch of the Sixth Report on the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with International Humanitarian Law

Remarks by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore 

30 November 2023


Good morning everyone,

I would like to thank the Spanish Presidency and Sweden for inviting me to participate in this launch of the 6th Annual Report on the implementation of the EU Guidelines on Promoting Compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

This is the Sixth Report on the Guidelines but we did not always launch the report and an event. It was always released of course but only in recent years have we had an event.

This year, it is perhaps more important than ever that we launch the report publicly and discuss it.

Recent and ongoing conflicts and crises around the world blatantly illustrate the renewed necessity to promote compliance with IHL. As ICC Prosecutor Khan recently said, upon returning from Rafah border crossing to Gaza: “we need the law more than ever (…) We need to see justice in action.

It is clear that more needs to be done to advance respect for IHL worldwide. Today’s event is an opportunity to take stock of what the EU has been doing but also to look ahead.

Let’s recall where this came from. At the end of the Second World War, after the horror and sufferings of the war, steps were taken to ensure it never happened again.

1945, the United Nations.

1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming our universal belief in the dignity of every single person.

1949, the Geneva Conventions, with the Fourth Geneva Convention, dedicated to the protection of civilians.

A year later, 1950, the Schuman Declaration, which led to, and which foresaw, the development of a European Union, founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights.

But today, as HRVP Borrell has reminded us, the EU is in the eye of the hurricane, witnessing horrific conflicts in many regions around us. They are a stark reminder of the renewed necessity to promote compliance with IHL.

While we must not relent in seeking to advance human rights, peace and security worldwide, we must also pursue every avenue to ensure that all civilians are effectively protected whenever and wherever a conflict arises. We must develop an automatic IHL reflex.

Despite the gruelling images we witness on a daily basis from the battlefields in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere, we must not forget that in war, there are rules to be respected. The very purpose of IHL is to limit and prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict. It aims to ensure that, even in times of war, fundamental principles of humanity and dignity are maintained. It sets limits to how wars are waged, it protects civilians, and it ensures the unimpeded delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid.

Around the world today, lives are lost, destroyed and uprooted, and human dignity is violated, not for lack of rules, but due to a failure to respect existing rules. All parties to a conflict, including both States and non-State armed groups, have an obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL, in all circumstances.

The EU’s commitment to IHL is not new. The promotion of international law and human dignity is enshrined in our founding treaties. The EU Guidelines on promoting compliance with IHL, adopted in 2005 and updated in 2009, set out operational tools for the EU to promote compliance with IHL in its relations with the rest of the world.

These tools include statements and resolutions, sanctions, and support for international organisations – such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or UN OCHA. Additionally, the EU engages in dialogue with relevant parties, and uses its political and economic leverage to encourage adherence to humanitarian principles.

There are a number of things that need to be done.

Firstly, dissemination. For IHL to be respected, it needs to be widely known and fully understood. Disseminating the rules of IHL, including to armed forces, non-State actors and civilians, is a challenging prerequisite for its implementation. It is the primary responsibility of States, but the EU can help to keep IHL  on the agenda through funding training programmes (ICRC and Geneva Call), through public diplomacy, and through its civilian and military missions.

In this context, I am pleased to welcome the adoption of the EU Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Due Diligence Policy on Security Sector Support to third parties. Agreed in September 2023, it should soon be endorsed by EU Member States in the Council. The policy aims to ensure that EU security sector support, including in the context of CSDP and CFSP missions and operations, is in compliance with human rights law and international humanitarian law. Developing this policy has been our long-standing objective. It is also one of the deliverables of the EU Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024. It illustrates our commitment to defend and implement international law. It is also important for enhancing the EU’s own coherence and consistency, as we need to abide ourselves by the same principles and obligations that we are advocating to our partners.

Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, Hamas’s gruesome terrorist attack and Israel’s intense military response, recent reports of violence in the Darfur, protracted violence in Myanmar, Ethiopia, DRC, Yemen, and Syria, continuously deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and many more. In all these crises, reports of violations and abuses of human rights and IHL abound.

Violations of IHL include: indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (in Syria of course, but also in Gaza, Israel, Sudan, Ukraine, and Yemen), direct attacks against civilians, sexual violence, deliberate destruction of civilian objects and vital infrastructures. All of these take a heavy toll on civilian populations. All also send wide-ranging and sometimes unforeseeable shockwaves around the world.

A second issue I want to mention is displacement. A first coping mechanism for people is to flee, internally mainly, or across borders. Displacement affects not only those displaced, but also impacts those who stay behind, as well as host communities.

During my recent visit to Bangladesh, in July, I had the privilege of engaging with Rohingya refugees. 1 million refugees, hosted in the world’s largest refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar. 1 million women, men and children forcibly uprooted from their homes, living in a precarious situation, and with limited prospects of returning home.

And in recent weeks, we have seen the displacement of half the population of Gaza.

Better respect for IHL protects civilians. It also mitigates the widespread damage to and destruction of civilian objects caused by war, thereby contributing to making return a genuine option for displaced people.

Thirdly, food insecurity. Russia’s attacks targeting crops, grain facilities and ports, and using food as a weapon of war, are in violation of IHL. They are also the root cause of the current global food crisis, affecting particularly the most vulnerable countries in Asia and Africa. The EU made it clear: this is completely unacceptable.

In other conflicts too, parties use not weapons but essential needs as a means of war. It is always civilians who pay the highest price, the very population whom warring parties should make every effort to spare and to protect.

As part of its military response to Hamas terrorist attack, Israel has imposed a drastic blockade on Gaza. There too, the HRVP was unequivocal: cutting off water, food, electricity and fuel to an entire besieged civilian population is not acceptable.

Fourthly, humanitarian access. It is the primary obligations of the warring parties to provide for the basic needs of the populations under their control. They must not deny them the goods and services essential for their survival: water, food and medical supplies but also fuel, when it is essential. When those basic needs are not met, parties to the conflict have the obligation to consent to humanitarian relief operations. Humanitarian access remains a critical challenge in conflict zones. To address this, the EU will continue leveraging its political and economic influence to facilitate unimpeded access for humanitarian aid and to advocate for ceasefires. In recent weeks, we have quadrupled our humanitarian aid to Gaza to 100 million euros and organised an air bridge to Egypt to bring emergency aid to the people of Gaza.

By systematically and consistently advocating for adherence to IHL, the EU aims to minimise the impact of armed conflicts on civilians and to ensure that, even in times of war, fundamental principles of humanity and dignity are maintained. Respect for IHL is also crucial to prevent humanitarian crises, and to safeguard the unimpeded deployment of humanitarian aid where needed.

The fifth area I want to refer to is accountability, which stands as the bedrock of IHL implementation. Compliance with IHL rules must be encouraged by showing that there will be no impunity for violations of IHL norms. Especially in situations where the EU provides support to one of the warring parties, it is essential that the EU holds all parties to the same standards: it must call on all parties to act in compliance with IHL. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been unprecedented momentum and mobilisation on accountability. The same mobilisation should prevail for conflicts in other parts of the world. The credibility of the international criminal justice system as a whole depends on it. The ICC of course has a key role to play and again, we call on the 42 States who are yet to ratify the Rome Statute to do so. So do accountability mechanisms adopted by UNGA and the UN HRC. The EU will  continue supporting them.

Sixth, politicisation. The EU will also intensify efforts to combat the politicisation of humanitarian issues, the rise of hate speech and disinformation. We must collectively rise above political divides. The protection of those affected by conflict must always take precedence over political considerations.

In recent times, we have seen a dehumanising, disgraceful cycle of death and a horrific disregard for the protection of civilians. The pain of others, the killing of civilians, including children, is no different, whether it occurs in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Ethiopia, Sudan or the many other places in the world where armed conflict raging. It should resonate with us, not because of our history, our culture, our traditions or our faith, but because of our shared humanity. Watching images of ongoing conflicts, I see the same pain in all parents’ eyes, the same despair on all children’s faces. There is no hierarchy of victims. The same human rights standards apply everywhere. The same international humanitarian law applies everywhere, without exception and without deviation.

But right now, what matters most is not how loudly we speak but how effectively we act. That is why the HRVP spent 5 days in the Middle East region trying to find solutions. That is why we welcome the temporary ceasefire and we will work for its extension. That is why we will work for a political solution.

Lastly, we must not of course be entirely blinded by the scale and horrors of today’s conflicts. The pre-existing challenges are still ahead of us. New technologies risks questioning the relevance of IHL. Promoting compliance with IHL must become a reflex to ensure that IHL be taken into account at the earliest stage of development, deployment and use of new technologies, be it technology enabled by space systems, or lethal autonomous weapon systems.

Let me reiterate, as I did last year, the importance of the annual reports on the implementation of the Guidelines and their launches. They increase the visibility and coherence of EU efforts to promote compliance of IHL and to foster accountability. I want to extend my gratitude to the organisers of today’s event: COJUR working party, the EEAS, and the Commission, for their dedicated efforts to transform EU’s commitment to IHL into tangible action.

Thank you.