The updated Commentaries are an interpretive compass emerging from more than 60 years of application and interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. Over the rest of 2016, several academic blogs are hosting a joint series that brings to light the significance of the updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention.
In March, the ICRC released an updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention of 1949 (GCI). This is the first instalment of six new Commentaries aimed at bringing the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977, to the 21st century.
This multi-blog venture is divided into three episodes, each of which focusing on a GCI provision – or a theme within a set of provisions – whose application and/or interpretation have evolved and give rise to debate among States and commentators. For each phase, the three blogs will invite one author to either initiate the conversation or act as respondent. The three episodes are respectively scheduled for this summer, fall and winter 2016.
The blogs will be regularly updated with past and upcoming posts, along with an evolving publication calendar. To kick off the series, Humanitarian Law & Policy will invite Jean-Marie Henckaerts, Head of the Update Project at ICRC, by locating the GCI Updated Commentary into the legal landscape and applying the rules on treaty interpretation to the Geneva Conventions. Expect the post by the end of this month on this website, or get it directly in your mailbox.
Bringing the Pictet’s Commentary’s Legacy Into the 21st Century
In 2011 the ICRC embarked on a major project intended at updating its original Commentaries, drafted under the general editorship of Jean Pictet in the 1950s (for the Conventions), and of Yves Sandoz and other ICRC lawyers in the 1980s (for the Protocols).
Since their publication, these commentaries have become an authoritative interpretative guide for States, armed forces, national and international courts, academics and civil society. However, in order to remain relevant, they needed to be updated to reflect more than 60 years of subsequent developments in applying and interpreting the Geneva Conventions. With the release of the Commentary on GCI, an important milestone has been reached, with key findings related to GCI-specific articles but also common articles governing the scope of application of the Conventions and their enforcement.
The initial edition of the Commentaries mostly provided historical context for the adoption of the Conventions and their Additional Protocols, drawing on the negotiation process of the treaties, as well as practice prior to their adoption. In this respect, they retain their historic value. The updated Commentary builds on and preserves those elements that are still relevant, while incorporating more than six decades of application and interpretation of the Conventions – 40 years in the case of the 1977 Additional Protocols. Capturing the evolution of warfare and humanitarian challenges, as well as technological and legal developments, led to many additions but also updates.
The multi-faceted nature and complexities of today’s armed conflicts have also resulted in more elaborated interpretations on the scope of application of the law in armed conflict. The new Commentary aims to capture key elements of the ongoing debate about where, when, and to whom IHL applies, setting out the view of the ICRC while also indicating other interpretations.
The Commentary provides important clarifications on key aspects of the legal regime governing the protection of the wounded and sick in armed conflict. On the obligation to respect and protect the wounded and sick, it addresses issues ranging from taking their presence into account in a proportionality assessment when planning attacks, to the general obligation to have medical services in the first place. On the protection owed to medical personnel, it gives details on the conditions under which such protection may be lost. The new GCI Commentary also captures changes in the regulation of offers of services by impartial humanitarian organizations, on the dissemination of IHL, and on criminal repression. It also adds a number of subject matters, such as the prohibition of sexual violence and non-refoulement.
For more on the updated Commentaries project, see the Humanitarian Law and Policy’s post here.