Dissemination of International Humanitarian Law

ICRC delegates teaching International Humanitarian Law ICRC delegates teaching International Humanitarian Law © www.humanityinwarblog.com

The rules of war, formally known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), are a set of international rules which establish what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict. The main purpose of this field of law is to maintain the principles of humanity on the battlefield. To this end, IHL regulates how wars are to be fought, balancing two opposed objectives: weakening the enemy and limiting suffering.

The rules of war are universal. Indeed, the Four Geneva Conventions (which form the core element of IHL) have been ratified in 1949 by all 196 States. Very few international treaties have this level of support. According to their relevant provisions, “the High Contracting Parties undertake in time of peace as in time of war, to disseminate the text of the present Convention[s] as widely as possible in their respective countries, and, in particular, to include the study thereof in their programmes of military and, if possible, civil instruction, so that the principles thereof may become known to the entire population.” Additional Protocol I’s obligation is similarly worded, while Additional Protocol II’s is less expansive: “[t]his Protocol shall be disseminated as widely as possible.”

Dissemination of IHL thus constitutes a legal obligation under all four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols (1977). Moreover, the implementation of such obligation lies with all States Party to the Conventions. The rationale is that knowledge of the law is an essential condition for its effective implementation.

While the main responsibility for dissemination of the Conventions rests with States, other actors, persons and groups may be given a mandate at national level to assist State’s fulfilment of this obligation. National Red Cross Societies, in particular, can play a role in spreading knowledge of the Geneva Conventions and, more generally, of the principles of IHL. Universities are also key actors in the implementation of this duty, as they can function as a hub where information and ideas are shared and discussed. In addition, the promotion and promulgation of the Conventions is one of the key functions of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). For this purpose, the ICRC deploys specialized delegates assigned to dissemination tasks in various regions of the world. It develops dissemination programmes and teaching material for armed and security forces, media and academic circles, and runs campaigns to heighten public awareness of the law.

Nevertheless, it must be stressed is that IHL is a relatively simple, intuitive and dynamic field of law that is not entirely suited to be taught. Certain concept may appear clear on paper, but when applied to a concrete scenario, they might draw uncertainties, moral objections and blurred lines. This is the reason why a more accessible, practical and interactive approach should be adopted in the fulfilment of the obligation to disseminate IHL.

With this complexity in mind, in 2015, two young international lawyers began considering the publication of a book that would collect all major IHL principles in a single volume. The main idea was to create a practical manuscript revolving around the central theme of “current and future challenges to the implementation of International Humanitarian Law”. The book had to be accessible enough to quickly enable a variety of users to familiarize themselves with IHL issues in their daily work, while being sufficiently comprehensive to allow more demanding users to conduct further research. The project thus started with the designation of a wide range of experts and young contributors who were, at the time, working in the field of IHL in different capacities, and were passionate enough to contribute to this huge undertaking.

This important and unique volume has now been published by Brill under the title “The Companion to International Humanitarian Law (2018)”. Beyond the scientific value of the book, which we all hope will be of use to a wide audience working or confronted with IHL daily, the book offers a much-needed tool for the entire population, offering a source for reflection and further research. Significantly, by creating a link between the academic knowledge of experts and researchers in the field, with the more practical and concrete direct experience of those working in war zones, the volume represents a truly effective instrument for achieving the functional implementation of IHL.


Author: Federica Pira; Editor: Calum McLenachan





Etienne Kuster, Promoting the Teaching of IHL in Universities: Overview, Success, and Challenges of the ICRC’s Approach, in D. Djukic and N. Pons (eds.), The Companion to International Humanitarian Law (2018), Brill.