The drafters of the Geneva Conventions realized that generating respect for the law goes beyond working with those who fight – it requires a holistic approach. It is only by engaging with a wide range of different actors that we can succeed in building an environment conducive to respect for IHL.
Building a conducive environment ranges from the incorporation of IHL treaties into domestic law and the creation of a public discourse that is devoid of dehumanizing language aimed at any group, to ensuring appropriate knowledge, understanding and acceptance of the law by government officials, parliamentarians, academics, members of civil society, the media and so on.
Important prevention work can also be carried out with the highest government authorities bilaterally and in multilateral fora, as part of the diplomatic efforts by humanitarian organizations, at times supported by civil society campaigns.
Among all actors, the role of the media – and now social media – remains as important. Even the most elusive groups are connected, and social media can be used to reach out to influential figures or networks which are sometimes impossible to access directly.
Still, nothing can replace direct face-to-face dialogue with the perpetrators and those who have authority over them in times of conflict. This is closely linked to humanitarian operations on the ground. Growing insecurity due to crime and the radicalization of armed actors has created renewed interest in direct, personal interactions in the field in order to help gain access to conflict zones for humanitarian workers and disseminate IHL messages. The ICRC developed innovative approaches in the 1990s and 2000s, and tried to engage systematically with a maximum of influential groups at the local level, notably through its field communication set-up.
Finally, one should not forget the important role that academia plays, not just in its purely educational dimension but also in terms of producing expertise, facilitating debate and conditioning future decision-makers.
How does this work look in practice? In a panel discussion in Beirut, experts discussed ideas on how to build an environment conducive for the law in the Middle East. Marco Succi, ICRC Marco Succi is Operations Coordinator at the ICRC. At the time of the event, he was deputy Head of Delegation for ICRC operations in Lebanon. , Marco Sassòli, University of Geneva Marco Sassòli is Professor of International Law and Director of the Department of International Law and International Organization at the University of Geneva. , Ahmed Al-Dawoody, ICRC Dr Ahmed Al-Dawoody is a legal advisor in Islamic Law at the ICRC. At the time of the event, he was Assistant Professor in Islamic Studies at Zayed University in Dubai and tenured professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. and Amal Abdallah, Lebanese University Amal Abdallah is Assistant professor at the Faculty of Law and Political and Administrative Science at the Lebanese University. shared thoughts on successes and challenges in the implementation of IHL in the region.
The ICRC is regularly faced with questions on the relevance of IHL: where and how is IHL actually respected? Does the ICRC’s prevention or protection work bear any fruit? These questions are legitimate in the face of the apparent blatant disregard for the basic tenets of IHL: anyone consulting media and NGO reports is struck by the numerous reports of violations of the rules of war. Unfortunately, this often results in an inaccurate perception of IHL as an ineffective set of rules.
Indeed, there are daily violations of IHL in many of the world’s armed conflicts but this is not the whole picture. Even in the face of violations and a lack of compliance with IHL, humanitarian workers in the field observe daily evidence of respect by many actors. Every day, State forces and armed groups are taking measures to translate IHL into their military operations.
However, situations where the law is being respected rarely make the news, which can partly explain the misconception of IHL as an ineffective set of rules. This public disenchantment has been used by States and armed groups alike to justify their actions when violating IHL norms. Such violations, they argue, are inevitable and are merely the result of a realistic approach to armed conflict at a time when the rules “don’t work”.
Thus, providing a counterbalance to this narrative is crucial. The ICRC supports the “IHL in action” project led by four IHL clinics from Emory University School of Law, Leiden University, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Roma Tre University. The three-year project is designed to provide factual evidence to help reframe the narrative on IHL by showcasing actual situations in which the law has been respected.