Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on International Humanitarian Law

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
August 13, 2019


Thank you, Mr. President and welcome back to the Council. It’s excellent to have you with us today. And thank you Under-Secretary-General Soares, Peter Maurer, and Professor Bellal for your briefings today. The United States would like to recognize and commend the ICRC’s vital role in promoting the protection of civilians.

Seven decades ago, with the horrors of World War II still fresh, representatives from around the world gathered in Geneva to try and change the way wars were waged. Building on an existing framework of law of war treaties, the resulting Geneva Conventions enshrined formal legal rules to govern the conduct of war. The Conventions have played a significant role in shaping parties’ behavior on the battlefield and improving protections for combatants and civilians alike.

Mr. President, today’s briefing is an important opportunity to reflect on the successes of the Geneva Conventions, and to deepen and strengthen international compliance with, and enforcement of, these obligations.

Much has changed in the past 70 years. New technologies have emerged, which allow for greater precision in many cases, but also more deadly force. The rise of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS has created new challenges as States work to defeat enemies who abide by no rules whatsoever. Today, the Geneva Conventions remain some of the very few universally-ratified international treaties. They are a powerful articulation of international humanitarian law and have become synonymous with ethical behavior in war.

Mr. President, as UN Member States, we have several tools at our disposal to address violations of international humanitarian law. In certain instances of grave and systematic violations, war crimes tribunals have been important tools to hold offenders accountable. The United States is proud to have supported the establishment of the tribunals for Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as their subsequent work to punish some of the worst offenders of international humanitarian law.

In other cases, however, obstacles to accountability remain. For the relevance of these Conventions to endure into the future, compliance and accountability are key. While Member States and parties to armed conflict are ultimately responsible for adhering to their IHL obligations, each of us has an important role to play in calling out violations and holding those responsible to account.

Mr. President, we continue to push for greater compliance with the Geneva Conventions by other actors, and we are also firmly committed to respecting our own obligations.

To this end, we support efforts to disseminate accurate information about IHL among all parties to conflicts. For example, the training of U.S. military personnel includes a thorough coverage of IHL in principle and practice.

We also incorporate IHL adherence into U.S. training for international military partners. This includes peacekeeping pre-deployment training that we offer for troop and police contributors supporting the UN and regional peace operations.

We have made the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as humanitarian personnel, locations, and missions, a high priority in conflict areas, and we know that effective protection requires full adherence to IHL by all parties to conflict.

Mr. President, the United States will continue our efforts to respect, and ensure respect for, the Geneva Conventions. We call on all Member States – and the actors they support – to comply fully with their obligations, and to hold violators accountable.

I thank you.