Naz K. Modirzadeh, Director of the Harvard Law School (HLS) Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, in an opinion piece for the International Review of the Red Cross, highlights the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) provisions mandating dissemination of the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols to the civilian population.

In referencing three dilemmas concerning contemporary challenges to international law in armed conflict and how each of those dilemmas may result in a “breaking point” or a “turning point”, the author argues that it is vitally important not only for armed forces but also for the general public to learn – and actively engage with – IHL both during war and in (relative) peacetime.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

It appears to be a unique move in international law to explicitly require that those in power not only comply with the law themselves but that they ensure that their broader publics understand and study the law. I would like to suggest
that this bold, even audacious obligation – and the crucial work of the ICRC and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – has three functions for how we will, as a global public, address these dilemmas, and whether we will move in the direction of turning points. The first is the creation of a public that, through the act of studying the law, becomes vested in IHL’s interpretation; the second is the development of empathy; and the third is the fostering of an increasingly interconnected global citizenry.

irrc-naz2First, dissemination and the study of IHL – the study not just of the rules but why the rules were created – foster a public that is not just more knowledgeable but is also engaged in a dynamic conversation about the law, about power, and about how States can live up to the spirit and purpose of IHL. Dissemination activities aimed at the civilian population, in seeking to encourage the understanding and study of IHL even amongst schoolchildren, develop publics which feel that they have a stake in the law, that they not only have a vital voice in its interpretation but that this interpretation does and should matter to them. My sense is that this requirement to encourage the study of the law protects us against the impulse – an impulse that we have seen so vividly in the past fourteen years – of those in power to make decisions about warfighting and about IHL in secret, behind closed doors, often providing only minimal information to the public. Publics who have knowledge about IHL, who are conversant with the law and, most importantly, who feel that they are part of the law will speak out against this, will demand access to legal decision-making, will demand to be part of the conversation. Publics who see the Conventions as theirs will demand that States have integrity in clarifying their approaches and will not accept silence or evasion. I do not claim to know what outcomes this will lead to.

I do not know what the law of the future will or should look like. But I believe that this expansive understanding of who IHL belongs to, and what organizations like the ICRC have done with their dissemination mandate, may lie at the very centre of ensuring that IHL remains a force for protection in the twenty-first

Second, I would like to suggest that dissemination activities do not only develop a public that has a stake in the law. They also encourage the notion of empathy in armed conflict. When you first learn IHL, particularly as a young
person, you do not only imagine yourself as a soldier driving a tank down the street, or as a pilot in an F-16 deciding when to release a bomb. You also, perhaps even more readily, imagine yourself as a civilian, or as a wounded
combatant. Dissemination activities invite you, as an elementary student in Geneva or a banker in Zurich, to put yourself in the shoes of the child whose parents are rushing to gather their belongings as they flee a neighbourhood that is being shelled; they ask that you imagine yourself as the detainee, relying on your captors to provide you with life-sustaining food and medical care; they welcome you to think about why we demand that soldiers must treat their wounded enemies as though they were their own fellow warriors.

irrc-naz3Empathy can be a powerful force. Empathy, coupled with knowledge, can ensure that societies – publics that must support their States in fighting wars – demand that their governments abide by the basic protections that IHL requires, even when they unleash lethal force against their enemies. Empathy ensures that societies see other, foreign civilians not as nameless enemies or huddled hordes of refugees, but as people just like them.

At this point, you might say that I am overly optimistic about what people are capable of when they are at war, or when they are attacked. Here is where I think the third element of dissemination becomes so crucial. The law does not only require that a nation at war must understand and study the law. In fact, it is quite explicit that the obligations of the Geneva Conventions are just as vital to understand and share in peacetime. By doing so, the obligation of dissemination evokes the idea of a global citizenry that is invested in the principles of the law.

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