Switzerland works to protect civilians in armed conflicts
International humanitarian law (IHL) governs the conduct of armed conflict and prohibits, among other things, attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Switzerland is committed to protecting the victims of armed conflicts and calls for respect for international humanitarian law. It has done so, for example, throughout Russia's war against Ukraine, where images and reports of war crimes in Bucha and other localities surfaced a year ago.
A destroyed hospital near the town of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region. Attacks against civilian objects are prohibited under international humanitarian law. © Keystone
Images from the town of Bucha, 25 kilometres north-west of Kyiv, shocked the world in April 2022: they documented atrocities committed against men, women and children whose bodies were discovered after Russian troops had withdrawn from the city. Photos and reports from other parts of Ukraine also provided strong indications of war crimes.
Switzerland immediately called for an independent investigation. Together with other states, it referred the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This was the prerequisite for the chief prosecutor to immediately start an investigation into possible war crimes.
Under the Geneva Conventions, civilians are 'protected persons' in international armed conflicts. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 on the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts are the cornerstones of IHL. IHL is a set of rules and obligations that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict. It specifies, among other things, when certain types of military operations, tactics and weapons are permitted and when they are prohibited in armed conflict.
- 'Protected persons' include, in addition to civilians, members of the armed forces who are wounded or sick or who have surrendered, as well as prisoners of war and shipwrecked persons. Under IHL these categories of persons must be spared, protected and treated humanely at all times.
- Civilians and civilian objects may not be attacked in any circumstances. Parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between military objectives and civilians and civilian objects.
- Attacks on military targets are prohibited if civilian casualties or damage to civilian objects are likely to be disproportionate to the expected concrete and direct military advantage.
- When launching an attack, the parties to a conflict must take all possible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects.
- The use of civilians as human shields is also prohibited.
- IHL also prohibits indiscriminate weapons and attacks (e.g. attacks that are not directed against a specific military target or cannot be limited to specific military targets and may therefore harm military and civilian objects alike) which cause unnecessary suffering or massive environmental damage. These include, for example, biological and chemical weapons, blinding laser weapons, and bullets that expand or flatten easily in the human body.
From the outset of the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, the Federal Council called on the parties to the conflict to respect and comply with IHL. Switzerland has supported the ICC's investigation into allegations of war crimes and has taken additional measures to protect civilians in Ukraine:
- Documenting and prosecuting crimes: Switzerland is bolstering the efforts of Ukrainian institutions, local NGOs and multilateral institutions (OSCE, UN, ICC, Council of Europe) to document and prosecute human rights violations and violations of IHL in Ukraine.
- Protecting civilians: Through its funding of humanitarian demining activities and education on the dangers of mines and other unexploded ordnance, Switzerland is making a direct contribution to the protection of civilians. It has also called on the Ukrainian armed forces to act responsibly and in accordance with the law in their dealings with the civilian population.
The Federal Council's Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–24 also identifies the active promotion of compliance with and strengthening of IHL as a priority for Switzerland.