Red Cross talks to debate new mechanism for upholding laws of war

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - States are divided about an attempt to improve compliance with the rules of war, a non-binding but contentious issue at the heart of an international conference next week, senior Swiss and Red Cross officials say. The Dec. 8-10 meeting will consider a resolution to hold an annual meeting of states that have ratified the Geneva Conventions to report on how they are enforcing its provisions to protect civilians, prisoners and the wounded in armed conflict. Russia is leading an effort to defeat or dilute the proposal, diplomats said. Syria, India, Cuba, Belarus and North Korea are among the countries backing Russia. "There is a glaring vacuum at the heart of the Geneva Conventions system," said Valentin Zellweger, the head of the Directorate of International Law at the Swiss foreign ministry. The 196 states that ratified the landmark 1949 Geneva Conventions come together every four years at an international conference but have no other dialogue on pressing humanitarian issues, he told a panel at the Graduate Institute of Geneva on Friday. There is "serious resistance among states" to the plan to strengthen compliance, put forward by Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Zellweger said. "The proposal now on the table is frankly rather soft. It is a voluntary system," he said. "We will see next week if states can consent or choose to stay behind. "A Russian proposal was submitted yesterday (Thursday). To a certain extent it is a counter-proposal," he added, declining to elaborate. Breaches of the Geneva Convention, which are potential war crimes, abound worldwide and some states may fear that the new mechanism will eventually have teeth. Russia is backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, where atrocities have occurred. It is also carrying out air strikes in Syria with the stated aim of defeating Islamic State forces fighting its ally Syria, whose government stands accused of slaughtering civilians including through the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. A U.S.-led coalition is hitting Islamic State sites in Syria and Iraq. The United States carried out a deadly strike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan last month, which the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has called a potential war crime. The United States, Britain, France and to a lesser degree China support the ICRC proposal at the conference. Resolutions at the conference are usually adopted by consensus but can be voted on, diplomats said. The new mechanism would be the first modification in nearly 40 years, since additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions were agreed in 1977. "We have a historic chance to build a mechanism that has been missing for 60 years. It's not going to revolutionize everything, but it is a really important step in working towards compliance with international humanitarian law," Dr Helen Durham, the ICRC's Director of International Law and Policy, told Reuters. "Most international treaties have reporting mechanisms, many of the human rights treaties and others. The Geneva Conventions have never had that. So we're filling a missing gap," she said. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Digby Lidstone)