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Furthering humanitarian consciousness in a divided yet connected world


With armed conflicts being a reality, humanitarian action and consciousness cannot lag behind. Humanitarian world is indeed adapting to better respond to new threats. With law and technology that are well-suited in providing aid to the victims of armed conflict and rapid information flow in a connected world, it is imperative to continue to act.

Are we living through the worst period in world history? Contrary to the prevailing pessimism, Professor Steven Pinker asserts that violence has continuously declined throughout history. The more violence decreases, the less tolerance we have for it, and so we persuade ourselves that we are living in the worst of times.


Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present. He argues that, although it may seem illogical and even obscene given the suffering we see today, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

The media play a contradictory role in this. On the one hand, they reinforce the illusion that we are living in the dark ages by focusing instantly and almost exclusively on disasters; on the other hand, they report on them, thereby urging us to refuse to accept the “horrors of war” as inevitable.

Indeed, we must continue to act. To this end, and after assessing the state of conflicts in the world today from a humanitarian point of view and looking back at a century of evolution and adaptation by humanitarian organizations, Claudia McGoldrick Claudia McGoldrick, ICRC Ms McGoldrick works as Special Adviser to the ICRC’s Presidency and Office of the Director-General. Prior to joining the ICRC in 2006, she worked as Senior Country Analyst for the Norwegian Refugee Council and as Africa Director for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. advocates for a larger role for local humanitarian workers in the future.

The ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement remain committed to transforming their field experience of the reality of modern conflicts into consciousness on the part of, and action by, the international community. This is reflected in the work on resolutions adopted by the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent of 2015, which according to Balthasar Staehelin Balthasar Staehelin, ICRC Mr Staehelin is Deputy Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He oversees the organization of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent for the ICRC. , saw an unprecedented level of engagement, and notably the International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts report. The report provides an overview of some of the challenges of contemporary conflicts, with the aim of generating broader reflection of those challenges and outlining ongoing or prospective ICRC action, positions and interest thereof.

The ever-evolving nature of conflicts also raises the question of how IHL should be interpreted in view of changing realities, which is why the ICRC is engaged in an ambitious project to update the commentaries on the Geneva Conventions in the light of a threefold evolution: that of conflicts, of the law and of advances in humanitarian consciousness. After the Commentaries on the First Geneva Convention have been finalized, Jean-Marie Henckaerts Jean-Marie Henckaerts, ICRC Mr Henckaerts is Legal Adviser in the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Head of the project to update the Commentaries on the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols of 1977. and his team of renowned experts – Lindsey Cameron Lindsey Cameron, ICRC Ms Cameron is Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit in the Legal Division of the ICRC. , Bruno Demeyere Bruno Demeyere, ICRC Mr Demeyere is Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit in the Legal Division of the ICRC. , Eve la Haye Eve la Haye, ICRC Ms la Haye is Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit in the Legal Division of the ICRC. and Dr Heike Niebergall Dr Heike Niebergall, ICRC Dr Niebergall is Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit in the Legal Division of the ICRC. - have provided an overview of the methodology and process of a comprehensive update they have undertaken.

In view of the horrors of the past, it would no doubt be wrong to conclude that there is less respect for IHL today than before. Furthermore, international law has made impressive strides in recent years, particularly in the areas of arms regulation and international criminal justice. Paradoxically, IHL may even have emerged stronger from its challenging by those who derided it as obsolete at the start of the “war on terror” as Emmanuele Castano Emmanuele Castano, The New School, USA Emanuele Castano is Professor and Chair of Psychology at the New School for Social Research. and Anna Di Lellio Anna Di Lellio,  New York University, USA Ms Di Lellio is a Professor of International Affairs at the New School of Public Engagement and New York University. affirm.


Randolph Kent, Gwi-Yeop Son, Sara Pantuliano, Antonio Donini and Mamadou Biteye on the future of humanitarianism and what the humanitarian sector in anticipating the future should start thinking about.

By identifying the causes of future conflicts, Dr Randolph Kent Dr Randolph Kent, King’s College, UK Dr Kent directed the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College, London. The programme, established in 2006, was designed to enhance the adaptive and anticipatory capacities of humanitarian organizations to deal with the types of threat that need to be faced in the future. asks: are we ready? We may need to develop more tools to anticipate future humanitarian needs. Whatever the case, never before in history have we been so well informed about the suffering of victims. Never before have we had so many ways of connecting with one another and engaging in dialogue. Though we still have much to do to put them into action, never before have there been so many technical and legal solutions for aiding and protecting victims of conflicts.

Want to learn more? Get the whole edition of the Review here.

On the occasion of the remembrances marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, this issue of the Review will look at the evolution of warfare from the eighteenth century until today.


  1. This e-briefing is based on the editorial by Vincent Bernard, editor in chief of the International Review of the Red Cross, “The evolution of warfare” IRRC, vol. 97, N 900, Winter 2015, pp. 959 – 968.
  2. Additional contributions by Jovana Kuzmanovic, Audrey MacKay and Ellen Policinski.
  3. Produced by Sarah Roxas and Előd Balázs-Engelsen.
  4. Voice-over provided by Jovana Kuzmanovic and Pavle Kilibarda.
  5. We would like to thank the ICRC Library and Public Archives Unit (Daniel Palmieri) for their contribution in making this interactive possible.
  6. Cover photo © Peter Corlett. Man in the mud, 1989 Australian War Memorial (ART41003).


© International Committee of the Red Cross, 2017.