To mark the 2021 International Archives Week, we wanted to celebrate the successful collaboration between the ICRC archives and library teams and other departments of the ICRC. In this Q&A, colleagues from the ICRC Legal Division Jose Serralvo Perez (Legal Adviser in the Legal Advisers to the Operations Unit), Mariya Nikolova (Legal Adviser in the Advisory Service on IHL Unit), and Yvette Zepherin Issar (Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit) share their experience working with the ICRC archives and library, highlighting their important contribution to the ICRC’s work as the guardian of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
How do the ICRC archives and library collections support your work?
“We are a very old institution, and although there are always new challenges, we come back time and again to the same questions. […] Digging into the archives can help us make informed decisions on current priorities.”
Jose Serralvo Perez, Legal Adviser, Legal Advisers to the Operations Unit
Jose Serralvo Perez: As a Legal Adviser to the Operations (a “JurOp” in ICRC jargon), I think that the ICRC archives and library are of great importance to my work. To start with an obvious example, the library (including its amazing collection of academic journals) is one of the key places to start any serious legal research: when is conscription prohibited under international humanitarian law? what elements must be taken into consideration when assessing the best interest of the child under international human rights law? are there public examples in the academic literature of unlawful attacks against the natural environment? and how is the principle of proportionality interpreted? To answer these and countless other legal operational questions, information can be found in the ICRC library, which therefore constitutes a very relevant (and sometimes mandatory) tool for a JurOp, whose work is precisely to advise colleagues in other departments on the legal framework applicable to complex situations. As for the ICRC archives, they are also an essential part of the work of a JurOp. We are a very old institution, and although there are always new challenges, we come back time and again to the same questions. Against this backdrop, the ICRC archives are the best way to see what we did in the past, as well as to understand the way in which we interpreted a particular rule. Hence, digging into the archives can help us make informed decisions on current priorities.
Mariya Nikolova: I have had the privilege to request support from the ICRC archives and library collections throughout a number of stages of my professional development, and this relationship has always been supportive, mutually beneficial and deeply enriching for me. As an external researcher, I found that the ICRC’s IHL Bibliography was an extremely useful research tool for students and academics, as well as practitioners, interested in the latest thinking in the fields of IHL, human rights law and related domains. I also recall being very impressed with the up-to-date collection of the latest book publications in the field of IHL, and the unique access to the preparatory work of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, which were at the time not yet accessible online! Since that time, I have served as Editor of the International Review of the Red Cross, a Protection Delegate in Iraq, a Field Team Leader in South Sudan, and most recently as Legal Training Adviser in Geneva. In all of those capacities, the ICRC archives and library collections have proven an invaluable resource for my work.
Yvette Zepherin Issar: I think it is pretty safe to say that the project to update the Commentaries to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols would be nigh on impossible to complete without the ICRC archives and library collections! Our team makes extensive use of both on a regular basis! The library catalogue is extremely comprehensive, and our colleagues there have been tremendously helpful in facilitating access to some of the tools that we require the most, including the drafting history of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. One of my personal favourite resources is the IHL bibliography that is compiled and sent out on a regular basis and helps us ensure that no recent publications are missing from our research. The archives are central to our work as well. They contain a wealth of information on the activities the ICRC has undertaken, and our colleagues there have been very useful in helping us sift through the mountains of documents collected in order to find the right bits of information to include in the updated commentaries!
Can you give us a practical example where the help of the colleagues from the archives was key for your work?
“Thanks to this archival research and the phenomenal job of previous ICRC delegates having documented meticulously this group’s perception of the ICRC across different moments in time, the team was able to inscribe its engagement strategy with the group in a logic of continuity and trust-building.”
Mariya Nikolova, Legal Adviser, Advisory Service on IHL Unit
Jose: During my mission as JurOp for Colombia, the Delegation was approached by an armed group. All of a sudden, in a rather unexpected manner, the armed group wanted to re-discuss with us some of the comments that the ICRC had submitted to them two decades earlier regarding the integration of IHL in some of their military manuals and codes of conduct. After so many years, nobody in the Delegation still had all the details on this previous engagement. So we submitted a request to our colleagues in the archives, who, obviously, had all ICRC exchanges with the armed group duly filed. This allowed us to have a substantive dialogue with the armed group, including on legal developments that had taken place since our initial comments to some of their manuals had been submitted in the late 1990s.
Mariya: As a Protection Delegate in Iraq, I conducted preliminary research in the archives to understand the evolution of the ICRC’s action in detention during the period 2003-2016. Colleagues from the archives also helped me identify relevant documents in relation to the file on missing persons linked to the Iran-Iraq and Iraq-Kuwait wars, which helped the team better understand the needs of the families of missing persons from those conflicts. As a Field Team Leader in South Sudan, I resorted to some archival research to better understand the relationship between the ICRC and one particular armed group in my area of responsibility, tracing back the dialogue to the time before the independence of South Sudan. Thanks to this archival research and the phenomenal job of previous ICRC delegates having documented meticulously this group’s perception of the ICRC across different moments in time, the team was able to inscribe its engagement strategy with the group in a logic of continuity and trust-building. Most recently, as Legal Training Adviser in the Advisory Service on IHL, I requested support from the ICRC archives to better understand the evolution and transformation of the ICRC’s Advisory Service since the time of its creation 25 years ago. This research has been invaluable to understand the historical events and multilateral context in which the Advisory Service was born as it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It has also been very interesting to get a glimpse of the dilemmas and challenges successive managers of the Advisory Service had to face in shaping the work of the Service and establishing its credibility and value-added vis-à-vis national authorities.
Is there any particular story you’d like to share on working with the ICRC archives? Do you have any tip on how to make the most out of the ICRC archives’ resources?
“I remember the first briefing I received at the Archives. I’m not sure how many colleagues have a chance to visit the actual, physical archives, but it is quite impressive. Entering the space, right away, you are struck by the huge scale of the work involved to maintain institutional archives.”
Yvette Zepherin Issar, Legal Adviser, Commentaries Update Unit
Mariya: I do have a key message to pass to ICRC delegates going to the field. As ICRC delegates we carry a responsibility which is not limited to the timeframe set by our mission. In the eyes of our interlocutors, we incarnate the ICRC long after our mission has ended, and we also have a responsibility to understand what our predecessors have tried to build in order to be adequate and successful in our own work. There is much we can learn from the ICRC’s archival resources about the history and perception of the ICRC’s presence in any given context, for example. I personally treat it as a professional duty to check such information before I leave to work in the field, in addition to receiving all of my briefings from colleagues currently working on the context – and the archives colleagues are always so open and eager to help, it’s really a missed opportunity if we don’t take advantage of all that knowledge and institutional memory!
Yvette: This is an interesting question. I remember the first briefing I received at the archives. I’m not sure how many colleagues have a chance to visit the actual, physical archives, but it is quite impressive. Entering the space, right away, you are struck by the huge scale of the work involved to maintain institutional archives. The archivists led us through aisles and aisles of documents, that they navigated through with great ease, and then presented us with an overview of the systems of categorization, so we could try to locate what kinds of information our team would be most interested in. Since the archivist knew she was addressing a bunch of IHL lawyers, she went the extra mile to show us handwritten notes by Henry Dunant. It was quite something to look at those notes in his hand, and to know that the efforts he inspired continue today, and that we are a part of that. I don’t think a lot of people get to see those, and it definitely counted as a pretty neat moment for this IHL nerd! As for the tips, I think I would simply encourage people to pay a visit to the archives in order to truly appreciate the abundance of information that is available, and for colleagues to make good use of all that is available there!
Ever since its creation in 1863, the ICRC has endeavored to preserve and record its humanitarian action as well as the history of the development of IHL, leading to the building of a wealthy and unique legacy of modern humanitarian action and law. The ICRC archives collect and preserve ICRC documents dating from the organization’s inception to the present day and make them available for research. The ICRC’s historical archives comprise 6,700 linear meters of textual records and a collection of photographs, films and audio archives.