2016 IHL Conference: Questioning Humanitarianism and Security

Topics: Alberta
Katrina Palad | March 17, 2016

From left to right, Chris Harland (ICRC), Kelly Sundberg (MRU), Andreas Tomaszewski (MRU), Jenn McManus (Red Cross, VP, Alberta and N.W.T.), Israr Kasana (MC), Catherine Gribbin (CRC Sr. Legal Advisor) and Duane Bratt (MRU).


In 2015, Canada, along with the United States and several countries in Western Europe, opened its borders to thousands of Syrian refugees.

Dr. Duanne Bratt, a professor at Mount Royal University (MRU) described this as the largest refugee crisis since World War II. “The numbers are absolutely staggering and it has led to a lot of confusion.” It is to address this confusion that the 2016 International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Conference, with the theme IHL in an Age of Security, was held.

On March 7, 2016, academics, legal professionals, and guests gathered at the MRU Lincoln Park Hall to participate in the discussion on current IHL issues. They were led by three speakers: Catherine Gribbin, Senior Legal Advisor for the Canadian Red Cross; Chris Harland, Legal Advisor for the ICRC; and Dr. Kelly Sundberg, Associate Professor at MRU.

Gribbin identified the four main groups protected under IHL: wounded or sick soldiers, detainees, those who are no longer involved in the fighting, and civilians. She suggested the outpouring of refugees from Syria “can be seen as a failure to abide by the rules of IHL.”

However, Harland argued the current, “Basic Rules on Lawful Targeting of Persons under IHL” were too vague and discussed several war time scenarios that highlighted the challenges in applying the rules.  

Dr. Sunberg brought the conversation closer to home -  what is a refugee in the context of Canadian law? He defined a refugee as a person who was outside their home country because they feared facing persecution at home. While seeking asylum in Canada is an option open for all, refugees are still required to undergo rigorous assessments before they are granted refugee status, balancing convention and public security.

The speakers debated the idea that “humanitarian principles are threatened with the rise of security concerns at a global and local level.” Harland and Gribbin both agreed. Harland stated that, “At times, governments in the world put pressure on non-government organizations… in places of armed conflict,” which jeopardizes the Red Cross principles of independence, neutrality, and impartiality. Gribbin agreed, saying that humanitarian law sets to make itself an exception from a political framework. However, with the current narrative on security gaining more popularity, the space for discussion on humanitarianism is narrowing.

Sunberg, stressing the importance of security, said it would be irresponsible of the government not to screen people seeking sanctuary. He also cautioned that accepting refugees into the country is not enough. “It’s one thing to accept people; it’s another thing to invest in the newcomers.”

At the end of the debate, the speakers agreed there needs to be a balance between security and humanitarianism. Without security, humanitarianism would not be effective. In turn, without humanitarianism, security would just be another way of controlling people.