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You might think the Geneva Conventions protect civilians, or that the Red Cross does. Think again.

- October 8, 2015
Protesters demonstrate against the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan outside the White House on Wednesday after the weekend’s airstrike that his a Doctors without Borders hospital in the Afghan city Kunduz. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Does international humanitarian law work to protect civilians on the ground? You might well wonder, especially if you’re aware that Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Nigeria – whose recent wars have all involved terrible civilian carnage — have all signed the Fourth Geneva Convention, which requires that civilians be protected during wartime.

Recently some, in particular political scientist James Morrow, have suggested that ratifying the Laws of War renders both democracies and autocracies complying with the obligation to reduce civilian suffering in interstate conflicts.

Similar questions have dogged the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with regard to civil war, which is nowadays the dominant form of war. The ICRC has a special status as a humanitarian watchdog, expected to promote respect for international humanitarian law, beyond its role offering healthcare and other basic assistance for soldiers and victims of conflict.

Journalist Philip Gourevitch, among others, has asked whether the ICRC actually does serve as guardian of humanitarian law and prevents civilian casualties during times of civil war, as is its reputation and charge.

As part of a project on civilian victimization in civil wars, we looked to see whether the signatory states held up their commitment to spare the innocents who were not fighting. We conducted an empirical analysis for the years from 1989 to 2004 for 72 countries based on data on the number of civilian victims in civil wars. Information about the state parties’ year of ratification to the treaties related to international humanitarian law and the ICRC’s on-site presence and activities were extracted from the ICRC’s website and the ICRC annual reports.

Unfortunately, what we found suggests that international humanitarian law is of doubtful effectiveness—and that the ICRC is failing as a watchdog for international humanitarian law.

1. International humanitarian laws weaken over time

The effectiveness of international rules decreases slowly with the number of years that have passed since the ratification. We observe more and not less civilian victims, although the number is not very high.

In other words, as each nation’s signing of the Geneva Convention fades further into history, we can expect its number of civilian killings to increase. The modus operandi of the ICRC promises the opposite: Armies will become more accustomed to the treaties over time, getting better at distinguishing between combatants and civilians.

Instead, we conclude that the norms will be forgotten if governments are not regularly reminded of their importance.

2. Rebel forces ignore international humanitarian law

Second, we find that international rules especially fail to reach rebel forces and that the use of force among rebel groups also increases with the years since the ratification of the two treaties. But rebel groups might be particularly interested in cooperating with an international actor and thus improving their legitimacy.

The ICRC could work to encourage rebels fighting corrupt and dictatorial governments that are sanctioned by the United Nations to abide by international humanitarian rules. We do not have evidence for this, but the civil war in Syria suggests that legitimizing the moderates early on during a conflict might make a difference.

3. Having the ICRC around does not reduce civilian deaths

Many believe that simply having the Red Cross onsite will serve as a reminder of international humanitarian law and persuade troop commanders and soldiers to internalize the international norms. But when we compared civil war countries in which the ICRC had established a delegation with countries in which the ICRC was not permanently present neither the on-site, we found that neither having them on site nor their seminars on international humanitarian law reduced attacks on civilians.

Teaching military and police forces to not attack and mistreat civilians is an honorable idea. But it just might not be enough in restraining soldiers.

4. When the ICRC asks forces to spare civilians, it is ignored.

The ICRC usually sees itself as a neutral medical force patching up combatants. On rare occasions, it does publicly condemn and appeal to feuding troops to moderate their violence and spare the innocent. We counted press statements and reports when the ICRC publicly voiced concern and protested against the atrocities.

In fact, we found that the ICRC tends to issue such statements only after a massacre has already taken place. For instance, when we studied the Bosnian civil war, we examined the timing of the use of force and the public diplomacy in the form of “naming and shaming” the disputants. The ICRC voiced its concerns 13 times, 11 times quite mildly.

The ICRC reacts to international humanitarian law abuses. But its public condemnations do not reduce the carnage in the weeks that follow.

Does the law of armed conflict and proactive measures by the ICRC deter violence against civilians during civil wars? Our findings suggest they do not. This may be sobering for those who believe that international agreements will end needless suffering during war.

But our findings do not necessarily suggest that the world should entirely abandon the Laws of War and related international norms. Rather, such agreements may need better sanctioning mechanisms.

The individual risk of being a victim of political violence more generally has decreased significantly in recent decades . The current civil wars in Syria or Iraq threaten to jeopardize this improvement. More proactive ICRC policymaking and an International Humanitarian Law with teeth could reduce civilian suffering.

Margit Bussmann teaches international politics at the University of Greifswald. Gerald Schneider teaches international politics at the University of Konstanz, Germany. This post is drawn from their publication “A Porous Humanitarian Shield: The Laws of War, the Red Cross, and the Killing of Civilians,” Review of International Organizations.