Discovering International Humanitarian Law: A non-lawyer’s perspective

By Nicole O. Melanson, Canadian Red Cross
With some trepidation, I arrived at the University of Ottawa, where I was attending the intensive summer course on international humanitarian law (IHL). For six days, we discovered the subtleties and complexities of IHL, and as I listened to the words of the expert guest speakers I became aware of the privilege bias that has influenced my simplistic ideas about morality in a war context. I realized that there are few situations where choices don’t have consequences.  
With gratitude to the trainers, lawyers, facilitators and workers who shared their knowledge, I’d like to share with you the top five lessons learned from this experience.

Lesson 1: The human tragedy of armed conflict is indisputable.

IHL is a set of rules that aim to limit and prevent human suffering during an armed conflict. IHL aims to reduce the impacts of conflict and preserve the dignity of the people involved – by choice or otherwise – in armed conflicts.
Regardless of political, geographic or other affiliations, affected populations can suffer heavy trauma that will have lasting effects for generations.

Lesson 2: Compassion and reason are necessary in the implementation of IHL.

Adopted in 1949, the Geneva Conventions are the foundation of contemporary international humanitarian law – a direct result of the injustices observed during the Second World War.
Supported by their Additional Protocols and various other treaties and statutes that have been ratified since then (all these legal texts set out, among other things, the acts that are prohibited in armed conflict situations, including the recruiting of child soldiers. IHL defends our collective humanity as generally accepted by the international community.
While this compassion is essential, it does not mean that we can pass judgment or let ourselves get blinded by our emotions. This truth can be difficult to accept when the facts, the law, or even our experience do not align with our expectations of a peaceful world.

Lesson 3: Compliance with IHL is possible.

Just like the laws in Canada define illegal actions, allowing us to live in some degree of order and security and have judicial recourses, compliance with IHL is achieved through a sincere willingness on the part of the various actors to follow to it.
This includes the State Parties to the Geneva Conventions, the international agencies (including the United Nations) that many countries are members of, and multiple non-governmental organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Note that IHL applies to the actions taken by parties to armed conflicts, namely the people involved in the hostilities and the chain of command (e.g., senior ranks in the military) during hostilities. Therefore, it is crucial to educate the affected population and key players about IHL so that they can act in good faith and demand that their rights be respected.

Lesson 4: The neutrality of the Red Cross is essential to the implementation of IHL.

The purpose of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement), including the protection of its emblems (i.e., the red cross, crescent, and crystal) are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. As a neutral party, its mission is clear: to come to the assistance of people affected by an armed conflict, regardless of their role in the conflict or any other characteristic based on their identity (e.g., gender, nationality, race, or religion).
This neutrality allows the ICRC to have access to civilian populations and individuals deprived of freedom and to offer them critical humanitarian assistance.
The Fundamental Principle of Neutrality means that the Movement needs to cooperate with all parties involved in armed conflict, regardless of whether they follow IHL or human rights principles – a reality that may not align with our idealized view of humanitarian work.
Therefore, in this context, neutrality must not be confused with “complacency in the face of suffering” wrote ICRC President Mirjana Spoljari.

Lesson 5: We can support the objectives of IHL.

In this digital age, we are flooded with photos, videos, requests for support and (at times questionable) journalistic analyses. Although in Canada we are protected from hostilities, we are still targeted by disinformation campaigns. This virtual distortion can make it difficult for us to grasp the reality of stakeholders in the field.
As the issues associated with technology, artificial intelligence, and cyberspace are increasing at a fast pace we, as individuals, have a duty to use social media wisely in order to contribute to compliance with IHL and avoid any involuntary involvement in a conflict.
To learn more, visit and MediaSmarts.

Presented jointly by the Canadian Red Cross and the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, the Summer School on IHL celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2023.

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