International Humanitarian Law and Spirituality.

10 May 2002
Michel Veuthey
A vast subject, or even two completely distinct, one could almost say ! And yet, the linksbetween the two are vital, in more ways than one :
reality today
perspectives for the future.
Over the course of time, we have seen, in each civilisation, islands of humanity being formed,inside which certain rules limited violence in war-time, by imposing duties of responsibilitiestowards victimes.The problem is that these barriers to violence and the notion of responsiblity for others were,for the most part, only valid inside the group, which is why I use the term islands of humanity, which on some rare occasions have allowed bridges to be built, sometimes throughsingle acts of generosity, but sometimes too at the expense of long and tedious battles.These rules were, of course, set to ensure the survival of a group, and forbade behaviourswhich would have permanently endangered the group.
Today’s Reality
Too often the religious aspect has been put aside as concerning only questions regulating thereligious freedom of civilian victims of war or of prisoners of war, or at the worst, because itwas considered as a possible cause of war itself.Without forgetting these aspects, I would like to stress the spiritual origin of today’sinternational humanitarian law, remembering names such as Vittoria and Suarez, orBartolomeo de Las Casas who fought to enlargen the circle of people entitled to theseguarantees to the entire human race.We cannot separate spirituality from the implementation of international humanitarian law : in199, the ICRC made a survey, for the 50th Anniversary of the Geneva Convention, on thereasons which motivate civilians and military to implement it today. One of the most
astonishing resusts was that the reasons generally quoted were religious convictions, andparticularly among the Muslims who answered the questionnaire.Now, I would like to turn to the last point : perspectives for the future.International Humanitarian Law, despite the developments of the basic rules, such as the 1977Additional Protocols – whose 25th Anniversary will be celebrated this year – despite also theinteresting developments in setting up of ritual mecanisms, such as the ad hoc tribunals forex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and while we continue to hope that an International Court of Justice will see the day, despite all these developments, positive law is today in a deadlock. Adeadlock which may well lead us to the point where, with the fragmentation of humanitarianlaw, new islands of humanity will appear, at the very moment when we thought we hadattained universality of humanitarian law and Human Rights.We must resort to our deepest spiritual resources, not only those of ages past, but thosepresent and which carry weight – enabling us to go beyond the choice of either justice whichis sometimes impossible and or else oblivion which is always a scandal, by the processus of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. This processus was first used in South Africa, on theinitiative of the Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, but has been used in numerous othersituations to reinstate national concord by an original means, combining confession andpardon in an individual and collective processus. The second element is to anchor once againessential humanitarian rules and principles in the conscience of each spiritual current withoutit losing its universality. We are not talking here of the survival of a tribal group or a peopleor even a civilisation, but in several different ways, of the entire human race. Geneva is anideal place for this, we need to kindle up the public conscience, bringing together jurists,military, politicians, of course, but also inviting spiritual leaders to add to these rules – whichhave perhaps become too rational – some of the moral binding, based not only on texts andtreaties, but in the depth of every one of us.In a globalized and nevertheless chaotic world, there is a renewed need for ethical and legalstandards,
especially regarding the fundamental guarantees of human dignity in today’sarmed conflicts.International instruments of human rights and of international humanitarian law are not theonly sources providing these fundamental guarantees.
 International law is only one of the
Yersu KIM, Director, Division of Philosophy and Ethics, UNESCO “Global Problems And UniversalValues”, available at,« The last decade of our century is witness to a rising demand for a universal ethics. Against the backdrop of the positivistic abstinence on questions of value and of the relativism of values of the preceding decades, thereis an increasing search for universal values and principles that could serve as the basis for collective effortstoward peace and development, as well as for peaceful and productive interaction among nations and societies.[…] In 1993, representatives of more than 120 religions of the world, meeting for the first time in one hundredyears in the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, adopted a Declaration toward a Global Ethics. […]In 1996 some thirty former heads of state and government who constitute the InterAction Council made anappeal for a set of “Global Ethical Standards” needed to deal with the global problems facing humanity in the21st century.
RENNER, Michael (2002) ‘Breaking The Link Between Resources And Repression’, in: World WatchInstitute State Of The World 2002: Special World Summit Edition, Chapter 7, New York, W.W. Norton &Company.
many sources of humanitarian standards. Legal mechanisms alone are insufficient to providefor an effective protection of fundamental human values.There are many different approaches (such as spiritual, political, legal and organizational) tothe promotion of respect for fundamental human values in today’s conflicts. Historicalconsiderations, including spiritual and ethnic research,
could also be among the remedies fortoday’s impasses.
Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 13, 1999, New York, published by the Carnegie Council on Ethics andInternational Affairs, with contributions from Thomas G. WEISS, Cornelio SOMMARUGA, Joelle TANGUY,Fiona TERRY, David RIEFF, and others