Seminar Commemorates 70th Anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

Singapore, 25 September 2019 - Singapore Red Cross, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), The Law Society of Singapore, the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Swiss Embassy in Singapore, held a seminar to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The Guest-of-Honour and keynote speaker was Senior Minister of State (Health and Law) Mr Edwin Tong, S.C. The seminar was held at The Pod of the National Library and was attended by over 200 participants. Amongst those were members of the Diplomatic Corps, government officials, university professors, lawyers, law students, Singapore Red Cross members and members of the public. 

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 are international treaties formulated after the Second World War in order to limit the brutalities of warfare and to protect persons who are not or no longer involved in military actions, such as Prisoners-of-War and civilians. They form the bedrock of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict. These are the most widely accepted international treaties with 196 member states as of this time. Singapore became a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1973 pursuant to which the Geneva Conventions Act was enacted by Parliament. That Act provided for punishments of up to 14 years jail for anyone breaching the provisions of the Conventions. It also provided for the arrest and trial of such persons wherever the breach took place. Additionally, it established the Red Cross emblem as a protected emblem which cannot be used except by the Red Cross and those rendering medical aid in times of armed conflict. 

Pursuant to Singapore’s accession to the Geneva Conventions, Parliament also enacted the Singapore Red Cross Society (Incorporation) Act. That established the Singapore Red Cross Society as an auxiliary of government to carry out its responsibilities as a national Red Cross Society and a member of the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In his speech, SMS Edwin underscored the importance of the 1949 Geneva Conventions in minimising violence and suffering during times of armed conflict. He reiterated Singapore’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions and that Singapore will carry out its obligations under the Conventions, which include ensuring awareness of the Conventions. He stated that the Geneva Conventions are an important aspect of International Law and an important factor in the Rule of Law in international affairs. He also noted that the rules established by the Geneva Conventions are now facing numerous challenges as a result of developments in technology. These include cyberwarfare and autonomous weapons. IHL will need to be further developed to meet these challenges. But any development of the rules of IHL must be grounded on its basic principles, which is to reduce the human cost of armed conflict.

Other speakers at this seminar included Mr Fabrice Felliez, the Swiss Ambassador to Singapore; Ms Biljana Milosevic, the Regional Delegate of the ICRC; Mr Jeffrey Chan Wah Teck, S.C., Adjunct Professor at the Law Faculty of NUS, Mr Benjamin William, Secretary General/CEO of the Singapore Red Cross; Prof Simon Chesterman, Dean of the Law Faculty of the NUS; Ms Daphne Hong, Director-General of the International Affairs Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and Mr Tee Tua Ba, Chairman of Singapore Red Cross. Included in the programme was a panel discussion chaired by Mr Michael Hwang, S.C. The panelists were Mr Nikolas Strucher of the Swiss Embassy, Senior LTC Mark Otega of the SAF, Mr Daniel Seah of SUSS, Mr Kenneth Lim of the Law Society and Adjunct Prof Kevin Tan of NUS. 

A wide range of issues pertaining to the Geneva Conventions were touched upon by the speakers and panelists. Of interest was Dean Chesterman’s presentation on autonomous weapons and the challenges these pose to IHL, and Senior LTC Mark Otega’s presentation on the role of IHL advisors during SAF military exercises and operations. Among the many issues raised were the role of women in IHL, and whether the Geneva Conventions are relevant in this day where there has been so many egregious breaches of its provisions yet no actions have been taken against those responsible.

Apart from highlighting and discussing the many issues pertaining to the Geneva Conventions today, the speakers also provided much information about the role of the ICRC and Red Cross Societies in ensuring respect for the Geneva Conventions, the application of the Geneva Conventions to Singapore from colonial times to the present day and the history and development of the Singapore Red Cross Society, focusing on its role in generating awareness of IHL.

This seminar was the first occasion that various stakeholders of the Geneva Conventions and IHL generally in Singapore have come together to organise an IHL event. Given the success of this event, it is likely that more events to raise awareness of IHL will be organised in Singapore.