Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Grozny to Managua

Today saw another news item that I found encouraging.  A long running border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was adjudicated by the International Court of Justice, with both sides indicating a willingness to abide by the ruling.  The Court's press release explained that Costa Rica had sovereignty over a certain disputed territory, and that by excavating three channels and establishing a military presence on Costa Rican territory, Nicaragua violated that country's sovereignty and navigation rights.  It also determined that Costa Rica had violated general international law in relation to the construction of a particular road.

This news came on the same day as the Red Cross marked its own remembrance day, commemorating "17 December 1996, [when] six Red Cross staff members were killed at a field hospital in Chechnya, in an attack deliberately meant to kill aid workers".  These killings took place in a war zone, and they may have been committed by irregular combatants.  They were a flagrant breach of the laws of war:
The civilian population shall respect the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, even if they belong to the adverse Party, and shall commit no act of violence against them. The civilian population and aid societies, such as national Red Cross ... Societies, shall be permitted, even on their own initiative, to collect and care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, even in invaded or occupied areas. No one shall be harmed, prosecuted, convicted or punished for such humanitarian acts
[Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, Article 17(1)]
It's too hopeful to suppose that the decisions of Nicaragua and Costa Rica to accept the ICJ's arbitration reflects a respect for international law that was not given to the Red Cross workers in 1996: one would hope that two reasonably sane national governments make better decisions than Chechen militiamen.  International law itself still suffers as much from those who see it as a cure-all for policy decisions they don't like as it does from those who deny it exists at all.  I remain hopeful that the world can settle between those two points, where even recourse to an imperfect legal order is preferred to the recourse to arms.

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