Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the landmark rules that define humanitarian limits to war and armed conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross and its partners in the worldwide Red Cross movement have sought to carry out the principles of the conventions through practical, humanitarian action.

Thus humanitarian action has been closely connected with armed conflict. The world expects that war victims will be assisted by humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross. What vulnerable person has not derived comfort, if not from protection, at least from compassion? Humanitarian aid has been an essential lifeline for those in need -- particularly women and children and other civilians -- for whom it often provides the basis of survival. The decline of the great ideologies has brought us back to the central fact of all conflicts: They cause suffering, and the victims need and deserve our help.

At the same time, we should beware of an undesirable consequence of the current enthusiasm for humanitarian work. We now hear references to "humanitarian war," which can become a modern equivalent of the "just war," which has led to some of the worst atrocities in history. I believe this is a dangerous trend, for to maintain that a given war is "just" is to say that one of the belligerents is exclusively right and the other is exclusively wrong, regardless of how the war is conducted. Such an attitude fundamentally challenges the concept of impartiality in providing humanitarian assistance. It cannot be accepted by an organization such as the Red Cross, which is involved in humanitarian work.

Humanitarian organizations must be on their guard against attempts to confuse the causes of war -- including its rights and wrongs -- with the law of how war should be conducted, which is embodied in those Geneva Conventions. On behalf of all victims, we must ensure that the effort to help them is not confused with the objectives of the war itself. Even the victims on what may be regarded as the "wrong" side are entitled to assistance and protection.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is embarked on a worldwide initiative that is based on this distinction. We call it "People on War," and its central purpose is to revive the concept that even wars have limits. The project involves opinion polls in many countries, particularly those that have recent experience of armed conflict, to learn how people throughout the world understand and experience this distinction. By giving voice to the world's communities, we hope to use the pressure of public opinion to make warriors behave responsibly. This strikes us as an appropriate goal for this 50th anniversary year of the Geneva Conventions.

The writer is president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.