Toespraak Commandant der Strijdkrachten, luitenant-admiraal Rob Bauer, ter gelegenheid van het congres Humanitair Oorlogsrecht van het Nederlandse Rode Kruis op 13 oktober 2017 te Den Haag.
Before I arrived at the Royal Naval Academy, I never really considered such a thing as the rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Or the rules of targeting.
Fortunately, however, I was obliged to spend a considerable number of hours studying the application of humanitarian law, as well as military history.
I shall never forget our professors, who explained to us how war could shatter lives.
How it separates families. How it destroys livelihoods. And how it is often civilians who bear the brunt of the suffering.
-The Second World War.
Studying these examples – and seeing and imagining all of the horrors of brutal warfare – made a lasting impression on me. At the same time, our professors stressed that war does have its limits. Always.
They are the rules of humanitarian law. Fundamental rules.
-Spare the wounded and sick.
-Treat those who are taken prisoner humanely.
Whatever their political commitment, nationality or motives. Whatever their past.
We still teach our men and women the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. By using, for instance, the handbook of the Netherlands Red Cross. We also tell our students about the important work the International Committee of the Red Cross is doing. And that the emblems of the Red Cross are internationally protected. Just as we explain to our students how the Red Cross helps to rebuild destroyed homes; repairs broken sanitation plants; and brings healthcare to remote communities. Or how the ICRC visits detainees, reunites families after separation and advocates further regulation of the use of weapons.
And let me tell you: our students are amazed by the actions of the ICRC worldwide.
And, once deployed in conflict areas, they admire the professional attitude of Red Cross aid workers. Because they realise, that in a world steeped in insecurity, their presence can bring hope and humanity. To millions across the globe.
What I’m trying to say is that International Humanitarian Law is the moral compass on how to act, for all of our servicemen and women. Even outside armed conflict. Even if our adversaries do not abide by international humanitarian law. That is why in all basic military training, we devote time to teaching the content and application of international humanitarian law. And this is reflected in the way we operate.
Our men and women receive, for example, clear rules of engagement for situations in which the use of force might be necessary. Both the soldier and the sergeant, patrolling hostile territory but also the F-16 pilot providing air support to coalition partners. The protection of the civilian population is always taken into account. Unfortunately, we can never fully prevent civilian casualties. War and conflict are never a walk in the park. But we will always do our utmost to protect the lives of civilians and to respect the law. Even though – if I were to be brutally honest – that is sometimes hard to do after you have seen what atrocities people are capable of committing.
Think of Isis. Of Boko Haram. Of Al-Qaida.
These extremists will purposefully hide among women and children, use people as “human shields”, use sexual violence as a weapon or children as suicide bombers.
These extremists do not adhere to a single article of the Geneva conventions. But when facing them, we must stick to these principles.
That is civilisation.
That is to operate within the confines of the rule of law, with parliamentary, legal, and international oversight.
That is what keeps us from the slippery slope and from an eye for an eye.
In short, the Dutch military stays away from such dilemmas. In that regard, we share a starting point with the ICRC. We try to help people and respect international law. But we also try to promote respect for humanitarian law abroad.
For instance, we train Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga soldiers, who have to fight ISIS. Among other things, we teach them the principles of international humanitarian law. An aspect of warfare that these people have never experienced. These brave men and women, after all, have primarily been on the receiving end of dreadful treatment from ISIS. They revenge looms. As victims seek justice. Which triggers another cycle of violence.
So it is all the more important that our servicemen and women lay out the rules as stipulated in international laws.
How they do that?
They talk the fighters through a variety of scenarios, designed to help them understand all of the different choices they could make and to help them see what would be the right thing to do. We ask them for instance: How do you make sure you are not accidentally attacking women, children or the elderly? Or what if ISIS isn’t playing by the same rules?
It has become clear that our training is working.
The Peshmerga soldiers are absorbing the training material well, and ask some very complicated questions. It means they are grasping the concepts, and have started to look beyond their past experiences. This is very important if we want to work towards long-term stability.
Besides security, education and training are the most important conditions for progress and improvement. They offer people a view of what a normal life could be. And they help prevent violence and misery.
But there is even more overlap between the ICRC and the Dutch military in what we do.
The Netherlands armed forces, for instance, also help deliver aid and restore order. As we did in the Caribbean, in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. When we deployed one of our ships to transport aid supplies. And as we speak, one of our ships is delivering these aid supplies from the Netherlands Red Cross to Saint Martin. The Netherlands Armed Forces also help to strengthen the rule of law. As we are currently doing in Kosovo, where one of the tasks performed by our men and women is to escort public prosecutors and judges to and from work. And we build and train local security institutions. Such as the Tanzanian coastguard, the Malian police, the Afghan army, and the military legal services of Uganda.
So we are furthering the same cause. And we sometimes use the same means. Yet, we still operate separately. While today’s conflicts are often long-term conflicts, and are marked by the participation of non-state armed groups. Meaning the lines between combatants and civilians are more blurred than ever. Just as today’s conflicts are characterized by the use of new types of weapons and technologies. Complicating access to people in need of help. This is something we all need to discuss.
I realise that the ICRC is neutral; it is one of its seven basic principles. This neutrality allows Red Cross aid workers to work successfully. And for the Red Cross to be associated with a military could be very problematic. Very dangerous even. So I realise we have to stay within our own mandates, and stick to them.
Just as I realise that, as a result, cooperation with the military is most likely impossible for Red Cross aid workers. But your presence - and your actions - do influence what we - the military - are trying to achieve.
So why not find a way to achieve coordination? In some situations?
Why not coordinate actions, while at the same time respecting each other’s boundaries?
I would like to believe that we can accomplish this if we could only adopt a pragmatic approach. An approach in which we can all share our expertise and networks. Without obligations.
This ecosystem approach aims to fully apply the qualities of all who want to support a safer world and a safer environment. An environment in which people can live and enjoy a secure future. The Netherlands armed forces are open to this approach, and offers a platform to help others. That is the reason why the Netherlands Ministry of Defence organised the Future Force Conference at the beginning of this year. The conference brought together twelve hundred people from all over the world. And from all walks of life. Not just military personnel, policy makers, researchers, and CEOs. But also aid workers, white-hat hackers, architects, economists, students, social scientists, and artists. All eager to make a connection, all driven by a common need for secure environments. And the great thing is, it was a huge success.
A wide range of very different ideas were exchanged between all sorts of organisations, giving rise to follow-up agreements and actions. For example, the agreement to plan a so-called Comprehensive Perspectives Meeting. To try to fully understand and tackle complex conflicts, such as the one in Libya.
This meeting took place four weeks ago, in fact.
Sixty people were present: CEOs, experts and high-ranking officers from international organisations but also experts from governments, think tanks, NGOs and the business community, all of which have ‘boots on the ground’ and therefore an extensive network in Libya. Some were obviously a little wary to begin with. “What are we doing here”, they wondered. “What’s behind this, other than the desire to share information and contacts?”
Some thought there was a grand military plan behind it all. But the open exchange of views changed that attitude. And we have now agreed to meet more often. Hopefully with many more people involved and concrete action as a follow-up.
Another result of the Future Force Conference is the pledge given by the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, to create a platform for practical innovation. And to help social innovators.
For instance, two months ago my predecessor, General Tom Middendorp, invited the Hassani brothers to his office. You may not know them, but these two brothers fled Afghanistan nineteen years ago. They now live in the Netherlands, where for the last three years they – together with a team of 21 young engineers from all over the world – have developed a mine-hunting drone.
Today, this drone is not only able to fly over a mined area.
-But it also generates a detailed 3D map with a built-in aerial mapping system:
-Uses a metal detector to pinpoint any landmine:
-Places a detonator on top of the mine with its robotic arm;
-And then flies away, and ‘BOOM’… lets the explosive do the work.
According to the two brothers, these capabilities not only make demining safer, but also twenty times faster than existing devices. Not to mention two hundred times cheaper than traditional demining methods. But before they can actually prove the drone’s capabilities, the brothers need to finish their prototype and start testing it on real landmines.
And that is where the Ministry of Defence comes in. We offered Massoud and Mahmud the opportunity to test their drone regularly at one of our military test facilities. Where they will also have the chance to talk to our military experts. To further improve their
innovation as they go along. So that one day… they will see their dream become a reality: And that is to clear all 110 million landmines worldwide – within ten years.
Please allow me to give you one final example from the Future Force Conference, which shows how collaboration between NGOs, civilian parties and the military can result in an innovative solution. A solution that is very interesting for all of us.
Let me explain.
Working towards the Future Force Conference, people from the Royal Netherlands Air Force and Capgemini came together and decided to design a whiteflag protocol. It is a decentralised protocol to create a trusted messaging network for disaster and conflict areas.
How this works?
Well, the protocol works on the basis of the Blockchain. The technology on which bitcoins are based. By design, this technology is neutral, and therefore not European, American, Russian or Asian. The idea is that all conflict stakeholders are able to digitally join this network. And the stakeholders are able to let each other know exactly where they are working or operating. Think of aid workers, for instance. Or soldiers and journalists.
With this White flag protocol, they would now be able to send and receive series of messages. About entities protected under humanitarian law, or about occurring events.
In this way, at the moment an attack happens, the aid worker would be able to send out coordinates where they are providing care which would inform a soldier not to attack and a journalist would be able to send out a live report on the incident and a proof-of-life signal to his news agency and family.
Just imagine the possibilities. It means this protocol will not only increase our situational awareness, but support more aid in the field, and most importantly: save lives.
So the question is: how to push this whiteflag protocol a step further? How do we convince others to join in?
Well, the inventors of the Whiteflag initiative have given this crucial question some thought. That is why they plan to launch their initiative NOT as a military service or as a commercial service. But as a neutral one. And their wish is that the ICRC will be willing to adopt it. And willing to implement this initiative. That is also why I am very pleased to say that the ‘Save the Children’ organisation helped the inventors with the next steps, and introduced the team of creators to the ICRC. And just two days ago, four people from the ICRC in Geneva, were here in the Netherlands to discuss the project with the Dutch Air Force and Capgemini. And I was told they were very enthusiastic.
Joining forces and connecting networks.
Not because of commercial interest.
Not because of self-interest.
But because we know our common efforts can contribute to a safer world.
That was the fundamental idea of the Future Force Conference. That is the basic notion of the ecosystem approach. And that is the basic concept adopted by everyone involved.
So I would like to ask all of you today to combine efforts.
And connect our networks.
So all of us can work effectively towards our main goal.
And that is to help people in need.
And to make this world a safer place.
… For everyone.