Geneva Conventions – Preserving Humanity

Haji Hakim bin Haji Hamzah during the launch of IHL handbook for parliamentarians.

by Hj. Hakim bin Hj. Hamzah,
Secretary-General, Malaysian Red Crescent

12 August is the anniversary of the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 that are now at the core of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). It has been 60 years since Malaysia acceded to these important treaties in 1962, seeking to limit the humanitarian effects of war by protecting people who are not and no longer participating in hostilities, and by regulating weapons and their use.

The Geneva Conventions provide specific rules for the treatment of combatants who are wounded, sick and shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians amid armed conflicts, as well as for the protection of medical personnel, essential civilian infrastructure and the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. The underlying spirit of the Geneva Conventions is to preserve humanity based on the guiding principle that even wars have limits.

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To ensure that IHL is adhered to in wartime, the Geneva Conventions require its state parties to take certain measures during peacetime. These measures include establishing National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies, which are impartial humanitarian organisations and act as auxiliaries to their respective governments in the humanitarian field. It is in this role that the Malaysian Red Crescent (MRC) is supporting the efforts of the Malaysian authorities, including in raising awareness and increasing understanding of the Geneva Conventions and IHL among the general public.

As early as 1978, the MRC, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), organised the first-ever Asian IHL Seminar in Kuala Lumpur that was attended by Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen Ismail, then-Minister for Foreign Affairs. Since then, the MRC has been persistent in its efforts to continuously promote the Geneva Conventions and IHL in Malaysia.

A significant recent development on the IHL promotion in the country was the publication of the IHL handbook for Malaysian Parliamentarians, which was launched with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Parliament of Malaysia in May this year. As it serves not only as a reference tool for parliamentarians but also provides basic general information on IHL, the handbook signifies Malaysia’s commitment and contributions to the promotion of IHL.

This is in view of the significant role that parliamentarians play in promoting and supporting efforts for the national implementation of IHL, such as by discussing and adopting relevant implementing laws, policies and budgets for its integration. Not to mention, their leadership and capabilities in raising greater awareness of IHL among their electorates, including at the grassroots and community levels.

As 12 August is also the International Youth Day, it is worth mentioning the role of MRC Youth in promoting IHL. The power of youth is not to be under-estimated, especially since more than 70% of MRC members are below 30 years old with over 200,000 cadet members in secondary schools and more than 15,000 young adult members.

Humanitarian education is certainly at the core of everything MRCS does. Even during the covid-19 pandemic, the MRC Youth continued its efforts to promote IHL and humanitarian principles by organising workshops, online gatherings and online quizzes for youth. An online quiz on IHL organised by MRC Youth last year saw the participation of 1,000 secondary school students.

It is praiseworthy that Malaysia has put emphasis in the learning of IHL among our younger generation by incorporating it into the national education syllabus for Form 3 students since 2007. IHL was a chapter in the Civics and Citizenship subject until it was moved to the Moral Education in 2019. The teaching of IHL is not just about spreading important knowledge of the law but importantly, it is meant to help instill humanitarian values and cultivate respect for life and human dignity among the youths.

While there have been good efforts in the promotion of IHL, more can be done. We can all play our part by applying the principle of humanity in our daily lives. This special day is a reminder to us that we should respect each other’s lives and dignity, the very spirit of Geneva Conventions.