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If knowledge of the law can be a safeguard, sharing it is an obligation


Sharing knowledge of the law has long been recognized as a central part of generating respect for IHL. In fact, the Geneva Conventions contain the obligation to disseminate the provisions of the treaties amongst the civilian population and the military. What does this mean and how is it done?

It is quite unusual for an international set of rules to contain obligations regarding its own dissemination. In legal terms, the importance of dissemination of IHL was first formally recognized in the 1906 Geneva Convention. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 contain a more elaborate obligation for States, which is reiterated and developed in the Additional Protocols of 1977. It was also found to be a customary rule of IHL.

There are several dimensions to this obligation to disseminate IHL. First, it is primarily a responsibility of States, though Red Cross and Red Crescent actors also have a support role to play in promoting the law and assisting States in their efforts to do so. Second, unlike most other rules of IHL, it is also applicable in peacetime. Indeed, dissemination efforts are more likely to be successful when there is sufficient time and calm to expose different audiences to IHL and humanitarian principles, so that real norm integration can take place. Third, non-State actors are also the addressees of these rules. Finally, the drafters of the text understood that military instruction was not sufficient and that the principles of IHL had to be known beyond the military, among the entire population.

But how does one effectively engage in the promotion, education and integration of IHL among the military and the civilian population? While the 1949 Geneva Conventions specify the material, temporal and personal scope of the obligation to disseminate, they do not elaborate on the methods that have to be used to translate the legal obligation into actual respect and compliance by individuals.

At a panel discussion in Geneva in March 2016, experts from different fields reflected on methods of dissemination for IHL. What have we learnt over the past decades about the dissemination of international humanitarian law? And what kind of innovations have the potential to make dissemination efforts more effective in the future? These questions were addressed by Etienne Kuster Etienne Kuster, ICRC Etienne Kuster is an advisor for academic relations at ICRC in Geneva. ,
Christopher Rassi Christopher Rassi, International Federation of the Red Cross Christopher M. Rassi is Senior Executive Officer at the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva. , Vincent Bernard Vincent Bernard, ICRC Vincent Bernard is the head of the Law and Policy Forum and editor-in-chief of the International Review of the Red Cross. , Chad Austin Chad Austin, United States Air Force Academy Chad Austin is an Associate Professor at Law at the United States Air Force Academy. and Julia Grignon Julia Grignon, Laval University Julia Grignon is a Professor of International Law at Laval University in Canada. .


Panel discussion hosted by the ICRC on 24 March 2016 at the Humanitarium in Geneva, alongside the 28th edition of the Jean-Pictet Competition. The event was part of the ICRC’s conference cycle on Generating respect for the law.

Dissemination in the early years of the ICRC was presented in the exhibition at the Humanitarium in Geneva. Experience the exhibition by exploring the walk-through below.