Geneva Call strives to improve the protection of civilians in areas of conflict or violence.
We do that by engaging armed groups and de facto authorities (AGDAs) because the impact of their conduct is significant on the lives of thousands of civilians either caught under fire or who live under AGDAs’ control.
Our engagement with AGDAs is either direct or indirect through partners and trusted civil society organizations. In all cases, it aims at raising awareness and compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law (IHL) as many of the violations are perpetrated by AGDAs.
Reinforcing Humanitarian Norms
for a lasting positive change
We prioritise our engagements based on civilian protection needs and the sensitivity of each conflict. We select those we engage with based on which ones we believe have the greatest impact on the lives of civilians.
Widespread violations often occur during conflicts, including deliberate attacks on civilians and their infrastructures, such as hospitals and schools. Children, women, vulnerable populations, and humanitarian workers are frequent targets. Our purpose is to deepen knowledge and acceptance of humanitarian norms in armed conflict and other situations of violence – the so-called rules of war. This reinforces the pillars of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).
As we engage, we use targeted awareness-raising and training tools. One of our main tools is the Deed of Commitment.
Deeds of Commitment are unique public pledges made by AGDAs to adhere to and comply with key international humanitarian principles. They come with a thorough monitoring and implementation plan allowing Geneva Call to deepen its engagement with the signatories, eventually leading to long-term behavioural change on the ground.
To date, 70 AGDAs have signed Deeds of Commitment in four thematic areas – anti-personnel mines; child protection and education; sexual violence and gender discrimination; and health care. Three other thematics – cultural heritage, famine, and forced displacement – are included in our operations across our country offices, as expanded upon below.
Since 2000, Geneva Call has worked in more than two dozen countries.
In our engagement, we focus on these thematic areas:
Children are particularly vulnerable to harm during armed conflict. They may be killed, maimed, abducted, raped, or recruited for use as a pawn in the hostilities. They may lose access to their usual education, or their schools may be targeted or taken over for unlawful military purposes.
Many of the serious abuses that children suffer in such situations are committed by AGDAs, according to the Office of the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
Geneva Call has been working since 2010 to protect children under the age of 18 and ensure that they can keep going to school during armed conflict or other situations of violence. 31 AGDAs signed a Deed of Commitment to protect children in armed conflict so far and have taken other measures aimed at banning all uses of children in hostilities, including as soldiers and as hostages.
Cultural heritage is among the most important aspects defining a population or a country. Sadly, destruction of culturally significant artefacts, monuments, buildings, sites, and museums along with intangible expressions inherited from our ancestors, like oral traditions, knowledge, and practices, has recently grown in tandem with other violations of IHL.
Widespread looting and illicit trafficking of cultural objects to pay for weapons are among the trends of modern warfare that lead to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians and turn more cities into battlegrounds, putting a growing number of religious and cultural sites in harm’s way.
Many of the worst armed conflicts are accompanied by famine and widespread hunger, with starvation instrumentalized as a weapon in some cases. Famines are not natural disasters but develop over time from multiple factors, including conflict and climate. The structural drivers of food insecurity also include gender inequality, which further increases the vulnerability of women and girls.
Fighting disrupts food supplies and production, sources of energy, workers and supply chains. Farms and other agricultural lands can be destroyed or contaminated. Unsurprisingly, millions of people threatened by famine and hunger live in conflict-affected areas where AGDAs operate.
Respect for humanitarian norms can reduce and even prevent severe food crises. In 2021, Geneva Call launched a Deed of Commitment to prevent starvation and food insecurity.
With the world in turmoil, the United Nations predicts the number of people who are forced to flee their homes will soon surpass 100 million globally. As of the end of 2022, according to UNHCR, 108.4 million people had fled their homes because of conflicts, violence, fear of persecution, and human rights violations – more than double the 42.7 million forcibly displaced just a decade ago.
Long-time unresolved conflicts and the risks of new ones breaking out are driving the forced displacement of people who become refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced, and stateless persons. Among those, internally displaced people (IDPs) account for the most; at the end of 2022, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, the number soared to 71.1 million – more than double the 26.4 million in 2012. Women and children generally make up an overwhelming majority of IDPs. This can be because military-aged men are forced to return home for enlistment, or because humanitarian operations prioritizing women and children end up separating them from the men in their family who stay behind.
People who suffer from these situations face a number of common threats: direct attacks, sexual violence, degrading treatments, loss of home and property, and inadequate access to food, health care, and other basic needs. AGDAs are found in most areas with high levels of internal displacement. Since 2018, Geneva Call has worked to engage AGDAs around the issue of forced displacement.
Healthcare providers, facilities, and vehicles have suffered thousands of attacks in recent years. These deliberate attacks violate a fundamental principle of IHL and deprive wounded combatants and civilian populations of urgently needed care. They can paralyze emergency services, endanger trained medical staff, and undermine health systems, including vital services for child and maternal health.
In 2016, the UN Security Council adopted its first resolution to protect health care in conflict – but the problem keeps growing. The World Health Organization recorded 834 confirmed attacks on health care in countries with conflict and complex humanitarian emergencies during 2021 alone. That number rose to more than 900 in just the first 10 months of 2022.
Around one-third of all such attacks are believed to be carried out by AGDAs. In 2018, Geneva Call began to engage AGDAs on this issue and launched a Deed of Commitment to protect health care in armed conflict. Five AGDAs have signed the Deed of Commitment so far.
Mines designed to harm people indiscriminately have been used with devastating effects all too often during armed conflict and violence. They’ve killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of people – mainly civilians – and often lingered as explosive remnants of war, waiting to claim more victims after a conflict ends. The end result: ruined lives and contaminated homelands.
Along with their human and environmental costs, these anti-personnel (AP) mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) frequently block civilians from receiving food, medicine and other basic services. They prevent the delivery of humanitarian relief efforts, keep displaced people from finding safety or returning home, and hinder longer-term economic development.
Among fighters in today’s conflicts, AGDAs are the main users of AP mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which identified 55 countries and five other areas contaminated with AP mines as of early 2021. “There is no credible estimate of the total number of mines in the ground worldwide,” it said.
In 1999, a landmark international agreement – the Anti-Personnel (AP) Mine Ban Convention – entered into force. The following year, Geneva Call sprang into action on this humanitarian front. 54 AGDAs so far have signed a Deed of Commitment to ban AP mines and advanced other preventive measures, such as destroying mine stockpiles.
In some cases, the commitments made by AGDAs were instrumental to their countries’ ability to join the AP Mine Ban Convention. Geneva Call also works to strengthen the protection of civilians against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). These terrible weapons systems, originally designed for use in open battlefields, are often used indiscriminately, causing wide-area devastation among civilians living in population centres.
Sexual violence – including abuses such as rape, mutilation, and torture; sexual slavery, forced sterilization or pregnancy; and forced marriage or prostitution – pervades many armed conflicts and violent situations despite clear legal prohibitions under humanitarian norms.
This often occurs in tandem with other grave human rights violations such as arbitrary executions, child recruitment, and torture during illegal detentions. Often these cruel actions proliferate in armed conflict when law and order break down and a sense of impunity prevails.
Perpetrators include members of government forces and AGDAs. While both women and men can experience sexual violence in times of armed conflict, the overwhelming majority of victims and survivors of sexual violence are women. Conflict exacerbates existing gender inequalities, which also tends to exacerbate discriminatory gender practices that deny access to education, health, and other basic services.
Since 2004, Geneva Call has worked to eliminate sexual violence and gender discrimination in armed conflict and other violent situations. In 2012, we launched a Deed of Commitment to prevent sexual violence and gender discrimination. 25 AGDAs so far have signed the Deed of Commitment and taken other measures to implement its provisions.