This week (12th August) the world celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.
The Conventions set boundaries for warring parties, placing limits on how war is waged and seeking to ensure that civilians are protected. Although the Conventions are not designed to stop wars, they are intended to limit the barbarity of armed conflict. All 194 States are party to the Geneva Conventions, making them universal.
Research commissioned by the ICRC shows that 60 years on, the Conventions are still regarded as relevant and workable. However, turning the legal provisions of the Conventions into a reality on the ground is still a major challenge. Dominique Liengme, ICRC head of delegation in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi says, "What is already written should be respected and that is the problem... the respect of the on-going laws."
The ICRC commissioned the research as part of its "Our World. Your Move." campaign in eight different countries with current or recent experiences of armed conflict including Georgia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The aim of the project was to develop a better understanding of people's needs and expectations, to gather views and opinions and to give a voice to those who have been adversely affected by armed conflict.
One year after hostilities broke out between Georgia and Russia, in August 2008, thousands of civilians are still suffering its effects. Many who fled the fighting have returned to their former homes, but others have had to move on to different regions, and hundreds remain in collective centres.
People who live in villages along the de facto administrative boundary line (ABL) between South Ossetia and Georgia have been particularly disadvantaged. It is no longer possible to cross freely, so there is no local trading and commerce, contact between old friends and families either side of the ABL is difficult if not impossible, and the provision of basic services is severely hampered.
The ICRC survey specifically asked respondents if they believed civilians should be spared in armed conflict. Overwhelmingly the answer was yes. .A decade ago nearly 40 percent of those surveyed thought it was 'OK' to attack enemy combatants in populated villages or towns, knowing many civilians would be killed, now just 12 percent do so.
In the South Ossetian village of Satskheneti more than 50 houses were burned and destroyed in the fighting of August 2008 and most of the inhabitants fled. Only five of the village's oldest residents remain. They live precariously, dependent on the ICRC for food and medical care.
Volodya is 73 and lives with his wife Natella. Their only income now comes from the sale of walnuts grown on their smallholding. They no longer see their children and grandchildren because they are cut off from family living on the other side of the administrative boundary line. Volodya can't understand what has happened. "We respected each other. We loved each other. We greeted each other. We kissed each other and what has happened now?"
ICRC health delegate, Joyce Hood, is the only regular contact these people have with the outside world. She visits the village every week to tend Volodya's severely ulcerated legs and offer palliative care to another elderly resident suffering from cancer. The weekly phone calls using the ICRC phone are the only contact Volodya and Natella have with their daughter who lives on the other side of the administrative boundary line.
Just a few kilometres away are former neighbours, friends and relatives, now beyond reach.
Natia Gelashvili lives in the village of Tseronisi on the other side of the administrative boundary line. In just a few days of fighting in August last year, a third of the houses in the village were destroyed.
Natia and her family were forced to flee because of the fighting. For Natia and many others, their fields, their source of income, lie the far side of a boundary now impossible to cross. Natia's house was burned and shelled and with it her small shop and bread oven. Her family and many like them, remain dependent on pasta, flour, oil and sugar from the ICRC. They live in a one room shelter with no running water or electricity. With their local economy gone, their dependence on aid handouts for the basic necessities of life is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Natia has never heard of the Geneva Conventions, nevertheless she says, "Soldiers do not have the right to destroy the property of ordinary people."
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
In many parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the rule of law is an ideal. The civilian population is preyed upon by armed men who seek out both men and women to rape as a tactic to subdue and terrorise the local people. The toll is a terrible one.
Civilians in the DRC conflict zones have suffered massively. Millions have died as a direct or indirect result of the fighting and millions more have been displaced from their homes.
In the ICRC survey, over three-quarters of people questioned in DRC identified actions they believe are unacceptable in wartime. Those actions include "the killing of civilians/children/the innocent", "specific types of violence/oppression, "attacks on buildings/specific areas, including looting and attacks on civilian areas" and "sexual violence"(mentioned by 43 percent of DRC respondents).
In eastern DRC, in north and south Kivu, crimes against the civilian population continue to be reported with the rape of both women and men apparently increasing. A widespread culture of impunity facilitates the lawlessness.
Arms carriers who prey on civilians make the performance of everyday tasks a deadly lottery. It is estimated that since May, more than 300 thousand people have been displaced by violence in North and South Kivu. Even in areas where the fighting has stopped, arms carriers roam the countryside preying on civilians at will.
17 year old Gloria (not her real name) was raped and seriously injured by armed men. As a result she became pregnant and had a baby boy. She was attacked while she gathered firewood for her mother. Eventually Gloria found the help she needed for herself and her baby through a 'listening house', which is supported by ICRC.
The suffering of victims of sexual violence, both men and women, is often perpetuated by fear of rejection from their families and communities. Health and counselling services for victims are rare. The ICRC, recognising this need, supports "maisons d'ecoute" (listening houses) where victims of sexual violence can talk to trained counsellors who assist in rebuilding relationships with their families and refer them to medical services. The ICRC also supports community awareness programmes encouraging tolerance and understanding towards victims of sexual violence.