Teaching the humanitarian ABC to Ukraine war fighters

Volunteer fighters of Kyiv’s Territorial Defence, supported by the Swoboda party, undergo training on 28 February, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/VII Photo/Ron Haviv)

All armed conflicts open the door to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), and the war in Ukraine is no exception. Attacks on a maternity ward, videos of captured soldiers shared on Twitter or the use of anti-personnel landmines, are some of the reports that have come out over the last three months, raising concerns about potential breaches of the rules of armed conflict.

Active in the Donbas region since fighting began in 2014, Geneva Call has been working on the ground with non-state armed groups to make sure they know and respect their international obligations.

“When the military operation scaled up, we scaled up our programmes with the same objectives as we did before to enhance compliance with international humanitarian law,” Marie Lequin, Geneva Call’s Eurasia director, told Geneva Solutions.

Why it matters

International humanitarian law is meant to reduce the level of human suffering during violent conflict. It dictates, for example, how civilian lives should be preserved, how prisoners of war should be treated or what weapons can and cannot be used. 

General lack of knowledge of these principles can lead to abuses in the battlefield but also a lack of understanding of their strategic value. “Some of the violations can be deliberate for the purpose of harming civilians and discouraging enemy force. This is what we call the troop effects, when an armed group is violent to keep motivations high,” Lequin explained. 

“But there is also a lack of understanding that respecting international humanitarian law doesn't make you weaker. Not using antipersonnel mines doesn’t mean you will lose the battle. If you use anti personnel mines, it's quite likely that your enemy will do so too and your own forces will in the end be injured as well. How do you handle your soldiers with a missing leg?”

With hostilities mostly taking place in populated urban areas and with heavy weaponry pouring in, there are growing concerns about IHL violations. “Certain types of weapons, like anti-personnel mines are being used and that's an issue, because they have devastating impacts – both short term and long term. It's going to take decades and decades to demine Ukraine, which was already riddled with mines,” Lequin stressed.

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There have been several reports of Russian forces launching cluster munitions attacks, killing hundreds civilians, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Ukraine has also been accused of using a cluster munition warhead by Russia in the Donetsk region, although the claim has yet to be independently verified.

The influx of heavy artillery and ammunition into Ukraine, also raises concerns about the equipment ending up in the wrong hands and fuelling an illegal arms market already swelled by the 2014 conflict in the east. “There is no complete control on what will happen to these weapons in the future. As battles are lost, who will take control of these weapons?” Lequin said.

Leveraging humanitarian policy

Geneva Call has been working to promote IHL at the decision level. While violations can stem from combatants’ reckless behaviour, battle strategy and enforcement of a code of conduct ultimately comes from higher up the chain of command. “Once we leverage for policy change, we work with the chain of command and the leaders on how this policy can be turned into practice on the battlefield,” Lequin said.

Geneva Call has been working on policy development with some of the militias supporting Ukraine, according to Lequin. “We had a request from some pro-Ukrainian forces on how to ensure that they could evacuate before launching military operations, on making sure that evacuation is not forced and on how they could convince civilians to evacuate, respecting the fact that it's the civilian decision to evacuate or not,” she said.

Since the war broke out in February, the number of civilians turned combattants entering the ranks of pro-Ukrainian forces has soared. Foreign fighters have also flown in from all regions to defend the country from the Russian invasion. 

“Everything is under the umbrella of the Armed Forces of Ukraine but there are so many battalions and combatants that sometimes it isn’t clear how the chain of command works and what the level of autonomy is. A discussion with the commanders of these battalions could also influence their behaviour on the ground, even if in the end, it’s the Armed Forces of Ukraine who have the final say and are organising all the military operations,” Lequin said.

To this end, Geneva Call has been mostly focusing on training the newcomers and teaching them about humanitarian principles. “Have they received training on IHL? Do they know the principles of distinction, precautionary measure, or proportionality? These are the issues that we are focusing on,” said Lequin.

But not all actors are necessarily interested, she said: “Some are ready to develop new policies, and turn them into practice, and some don't want to hear about any of this.”

Another part of Geneva Call’s work is training aid organisations to promote compliance with IHL. “Very often the aid community approaches weapon bearers for good reasons, to get access and provide assistance. But it’s often presented as ‘we need access’ when the approach should be ‘we can bring something to the population’. The armed forces also have children and have families and communities that need taking care of,” Lequin said.

Can we talk to all sides?

On the Russian side, contact with separatist pro-Russian groups has been limited, Lequin admitted, pointing to the difficulties humanitarian actors have had in accessing their side of the frontline in the Eastern region over the years. “A form of dialogue is there but with limited extent,” she said.

Asked if she thinks there is interest from their side, Lequin said that it is a matter of “finding common ground”. In an effort to establish trust, the organisation is relying on local actors such as community and religious groups, but Lequin remains vague about the details as to not jeopardise ongoing efforts.

Humanitarian organisations have been the target of harsh criticism for what people see as chumming up to the other side. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) was recently caught up in a storm of unsubstantiated accusations of abetting forced evacuations of Ukrainians by Russian forces, fuelled by anger at a picture of its president Peter Maurer meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. 

Geneva Call is no stranger to this sort of backlash. “We face the same criticism when we explain that we're trying to engage with both parties. It's not because we have friendly relations with one party or the other that we side with anyone. That engagement is regardless of political motivation. It’s only to make sure beneficiaries can be assisted,” said Lequin.

“But by explaining why we're doing so and what the tenets and principles of neutrality are, we can change the perception of why it's important to talk to friends and enemy forces,” Lequin said, calling on the need to depoliticise humanitarian aid.