Nation & World

Looking at war through a legal lens

4 min read

Modern conflicts with shadowy belligerents blending with the civilian population are stressing international humanitarian law, prompting some to think it’s time to redraft the law to enhance protections for civilians and to clarify who is a combatant and who is not.

Other experts, however, said that there should be no hurry to dismantle the existing framework of international humanitarian law, which governs behavior of combatants and seeks to protect civilians from the effects of warfare.

With the 1949 Geneva Conventions as its core, the international humanitarian law framework is well known, they said, and despite its flaws has provided important guidelines and safeguards for decades. Redrafting and reapproving new laws will take time and may not produce something superior to the existing framework. Instead, they said, current law should be examined for new ways to apply it to current conflicts.

The debate over international humanitarian law wrapped up a weeklong executive session for 35 humanitarian workers from around the world, including Sudan, Chechnya, and Uganda.

The weeklong program, “Advanced Training on International Humanitarian Law in Current Conflicts: New Challenges and Dilemmas,” was sponsored by the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Claude Bruderlein, director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, said the program is aimed at accomplished midcareer professionals. The weeklong training session, in its sixth year, allows them to step back and examine international law as it relates to their work. Each year, the program gets 300 applications out of which 35 are selected, Bruderlein said.

The program touched on a variety of subjects such as the distinction between combatants and civilians, protection of civilians, history and application of international humanitarian law, behavior during warfare, the link between human rights and humanitarian law, occupation, the conduct of war, the global war on terror, peace operations, genocide, high-tech warfare, counterinsurgency, and a case study on Darfur.

The closing event, “Challenges and Perspectives,” was held July 20 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium. It featured a panel of authorities on international law examining whether or not new laws are needed.

On the panel were Bruderlein; Antoine Bouvier, the International Committee of the Red Cross’ legal adviser delegate to academic circles; Anthony Dworkin, executive director of the nonprofit Crimes of War Project; Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research; Naz Modirzadeh, senior associate at the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research; and Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of international health at the Harvard School of Public Health and a faculty member at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Though panelists disagreed over whether new laws are needed, they agreed that the problem stems from the nature of today’s conflicts, which often provide little distinction between combatants and civilians. That, in turn, stems from the imbalance between combatants in many conflicts. Instead of nations squaring off and abiding by the rules of war, nationless organizations are in several cases waging war with nations.

The way those groups level the playing field is by being elusive and hiding in the civilian populations, putting civilians at risk and blurring the line between combatants and noncombatants.

Though this “asymmetry” is a feature of today’s conflicts, Bouvier said it’s not entirely new, offering the example of the Polish cavalry facing Nazi tanks in World War II. Other panelists said that, though the rules were codified in 1949, they really reflect accepted practice during warfare that had been observed for centuries.

One current problem with the international humanitarian laws today, however, is that they’re widely viewed as a Western construct, and by abiding by them some leaders, particularly of guerilla groups, say they’d be at a major disadvantage. Bruderlein said that any move to revise the current law should involve as many different states and cultures as possible to give the resulting guidelines as broad legitimacy as possible. Mohamedou said the laws need to be cast as representing universal values, and the idealism surrounding them recaptured.