At the start of the week, members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines took a special oath in ceremonies at Camp Aguinaldo. The AFP members swore adherence to the International Humanitarian Law, which governs military conduct in areas of armed conflict. The oath-taking kicked off events to mark today’s observance of International Humanitarian Law Day.
IHL includes the Geneva Convention and similar international treaties that legally bind signatories to rules on the conduct of war. It also provides protection to prisoners of war, civilians under enemy control as well as combatants who are sick, wounded or shipwrecked. In 1999, the administration of Joseph Estrada designated Aug. 12 as a special day to mark IHL.
Since then, many violations of the IHL have been committed by state forces. Adherence to humanitarian law can be particularly tough for government forces when their enemies are mutilating and decapitating military and police captives. The oath of adherence was taken as the military continued to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf bandits who beheaded five of seven Marines killed in an ambush last month in the jungles of Sulu.
But not all enemies of the state are barbarians like the Abu Sayyaf. And civilians do need protection from getting caught in the crossfire in conflict areas. An annual reminder of adherence to the IHL should help minimize human rights violations that are committed, whether deliberately or, as the AFP insists, inadvertently, in the course of counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations.
Violations of the rights especially of civilians erode public support for such operations, making the job of government forces tougher. Communist rebels reached their peak strength during martial law, when human rights violations committed by state forces aggravated deep-rooted problems of poverty, social injustice and bad governance. Those problems are still around, and the Philippine communist rebellion has become one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world. If the AFP could make good on its commitment to adhere to the IHL, it could be a significant step toward winning the peace.