A description of ICRC activities aimed at strengthening understanding of, and compliance with, International Humanitarian Law.

By Mikhail Orkin – Legal Adviser, ICRC


The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero once said “…in times of war, the law falls silent”. While this was perhaps true in Cicero’s time, the law is by no means silent in war in our world. Today, the body of law called International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Laws of War, aims to protect in armed conflict, by regulating the use of violence in conflicts and by sparing civilians and others not participating in the hostilities. This vast body of law is embodied in a number of treaties and other sources, at the heart of which lie the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the most widely accepted treaties of all time. The vast majority of states, among them Israel, has signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions.

The study of international humanitarian law in Israel is not just a theoretical exercise, relevant to problems in some far-off land. It is, regrettably, highly relevant to the complex and harsh challenges which present themselves in the unfolding story of this context. Israel has a rich and prominent academic history in the field of international humanitarian law.  Beyond Israeli academia, and from within the legal discourse, the Supreme Court of Israel itself has granted these laws a place of great significance within the Israeli legal system, with the court having repeatedly emphasized in its judgments that every Israeli soldier “carries in his backpack”, amongst other key sources, the Laws of War. This is a significance which is both practical and profound.

Compliance with any field of the law, let alone a field as practical and critical, as international humanitarian law cannot be achieved through mere signature of treaties alone. For the law to be effective, it must be known and effectively implemented. From the decision maker who directs policy to the soldier on the battlefield who wields his weapon, a commitment to respecting the laws of war must be embraced. In order to promote this knowledge and commitment, in the hope that this will protect civilians and ultimately reduce unnecessary suffering caused by armed conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works across the world to promote awareness and understanding of international humanitarian law. As part of these efforts, the ICRC works with academic institutions to promote the study of this area of the law and energize a new generation of students, who will go on to assume positions of influence in society.

The ICRC has a range of IHL-related activities in Israel, including conferences, guest lectures, workshops and other activities, which aim to support the education of a new generation of Israeli students. Through doing so, the ICRC hopes that these students will make use of this education to enhance compliance with IHL norms in their future careers. One such activity pursued locally by the ICRC is the Israeli National IHL Competition, which is organized and conducted by the ICRC delegation in Israel, with the assistance of ALMA – the Organization for the Promotion of IHL. The competition, now in its eighth year, was recently held at Kibbutz Tzuba. Leading Israeli academic institutions participated in the competition – Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Sha’arei Mishpat College, with the competition ultimately having been won by a team from Hebrew University. The National IHL Competition involves a series of fictional scenarios in connection with which the participants must analyze and develop practical, concrete solutions using IHL. In so doing, they are required to place themselves in the shoes of those who must apply IHL in the real world – from perspectives such as those of military commanders, legal advisers to governments, or foot soldiers. In meeting these challenges, their main recourse must be IHL, this body of law which strives to break the silence of Cicero, which binds nations and actors in war, and which provides the framework that protects the human dignity of persons caught between the warring parties.

It is our hope, and our belief, that the ICRC’s activities in Israel, such as the IHL competition, will support the ability of future legal professionals – and future leaders – to influence the practice of their society and further their society’s compliance with the laws of war.