5
Making the Geneva Conventions

The Protection of Civilians

This was a long-standing Red Cross project to which the experiences of 1939-45 gave urgency and direction. By the end of the Second World War it had become a matter of major international concern. Nothing was--and nothing is--more crucial to IHL than the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, which, being translated into popular terms, approximates to the difference between the military and the civilian population. Setting aside as best it can the modern world's many tendencies to blur or even to abolish that difference, the humanitarian community tenaciously argues that civilians must be spared so far as the necessities of modern war permit. Between 1939 and 1945 their sufferings had been great and had been experienced under three principal heads: (a) civilians residing or travelling in a foreign country at the time of its becoming a formal enemy of their own State, and on that account subjected, as enemy aliens, to detention and other forms of maltreatment; (b) civilians of a country subjected by an enemy to military occupation; (c) civilians of belligerent States suffering in consequence of enemy attacks, whether directly aimed at them or incidentally hitting them, as was especially felt to be the effect of much aerial bombardment.

From a general humanitarian point of view, no one of these three categories of civilian suffering could be said to need attention more or less urgently than the others. Political circumstances however directed that only the first two--'enemy aliens' and 'civilians under enemy military occupation'--should be given much of the new Convention's protection. It was, above all, as sufferers from enemy military occupation that the majority of the European States represented at the 1947--9 conferences felt an urge to make new law for the protection of civilians. The most conspicuous sufferers from bombing, Germany and Japan, were unable to put their case, while the bombing specialists, the USA and the UK, had every reason for preventing the case being put. As we have seen, the case was put, to the small extent that terms of reference and rules of procedure permitted, by the USSR and its allies; but with a mixture of political and humanitarian motives that was impossible to unravel and that was in any case so obvious

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