How can academics uphold humanity in armed conflict?

by | Nov 14, 2019 | Development, Experts, Negotiation | 0 comments

Mobilising academics: an endeavour taken from the start

“How can academics uphold the principles of humanity in armed conflict?” – a question that could be met with some scepticism. The ICRC, however, has been answering this question since it was created in 1863. In 1869, just six years later, a French academic, Eugène Cauchy, gave a lecture at the Institut de France on behalf of the ICRC about the 1864 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.1 This lecture was intended to spread the ideas and principles of this first convention among lawyers, whose opinions would help shape international law.

Since that lecture, the ICRC has continued to engage with academics and universities, mobilizing them to promote international humanitarian law (IHL) among their academic peers and students, and with governments and influencers. For over 150 years, academics have also helped the ICRC understand different cultural situations; they have reflected on humanitarian problems and proposed solutions. Importantly, academics have advised and influenced decision-makers to take the right steps, adopt laws and policies, and ratify treaties to uphold the principles of humanity in armed conflicts.2

Disseminating IHL and influencing decision-makers

Integrate IHL in university curricula

Over the past three decades, the ICRC has systematically engaged academics around the world, with the aim of building a critical mass of influencers and decision-makers who are well versed in IHL.3 One approach has been to work with education authorities to include IHL in the curricula of leading universities. The most recent example of this is the 2019 memorandum of understanding with the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education to integrate IHL in the study plans of Member States.4

Organise academic events

Another approach has been to organize IHL courses, seminars, round tables and conferences for academic lecturers and researchers.5 Such events may address a range of issues, as did the recent advanced IHL seminar organized with the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.6 Other events may focus on specific topics, such as the nexus between humanitarian action and development in protracted armed conflicts, which was addressed during a course at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.7 The ICRC has also organized IHL competitions for students and supported others,8 such as the Jean-Pictet Competition, which brings together over 250 students every year, connecting them with humanitarian professionals.9

Develop digital tools

In addition, the ICRC has developed a number of digital tools, such as the e-learning course Introduction to International Humanitarian Law,10 the handbook International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction,11 the online casebook How does law protect in war?,12 and many others13 – the latest being its IHL app.14

Mobilising academics: select outcomes, challenges and solutions

Today, some 90 ICRC delegations interact with over 900 universities worldwide. Two-thirds of these interactions relate to IHL. Former students have gone on to establish IHL centres in Canada,15 Argentina,16 Serbia,17 or Burkina Faso,18. They have also set up competitions for students that promote peace and reconciliation.19 They have drafted State policies for States involved in armed conflict or joined armed forces; others have decided to work for courts that prosecute war crimes. Countless others have joined the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations. Similarly, academics working with the ICRC have for instance contributed to recent initiatives related to IHL and humanitarian issues, such as Guidelines on investigating violations of IHL,20 or briefing the UN Security Council.21

Yet, when one thinks about respect for IHL today, the picture looks bleak, with civilians being bombed, chemical weapons and landmines deployed, and hospitals attacked. More examples could be listed, but it is important to remember that these are just the negatives because positive examples of respect for IHL are rarely publicized.22 The reasons for this vary; when the law is complied with, it often means that nothing happens. Examples of compliance seldom make the news because they are not deemed newsworthy or of interest to the public. So, respect for IHL is usually overshadowed by the visible and dire consequences of lawbreaking.

However, the assumption that “if the law is always broken then it is not relevant” is not correct. If IHL were always broken, few civilians would survive armed conflicts, hospitals would not remain functional during hostilities and humanitarian assistance would not reach people in need, as we know it does.23 Similarly, when the law is broken, and it triggers public outrage, this should not result in the law being considered irrelevant. On the contrary, lawbreaking should lead to more people demanding that IHL be faithfully implemented by their governments and the parties to armed conflicts.

Academics and universities can play a major role in encouraging this behaviour. When speaking in the media or organizing conferences, they could address concerns about the relevance of IHL and encourage people to demand that IHL is better implemented. Academic research could also better match current humanitarian issues,24 demonstrate how respect for IHL can prevent and/or mitigate such issues,25 and encourage IHL-compliant decisions and policies based on evidence.

If, at first sight, working with academics may not look like the most obvious approach to upholding the principles of humanity in armed conflict, it still has a significant role to play in changing attitudes and in preventing humans from repeating their most serious mistakes.

Adviser for relations with academic circles
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

* This post reflects the views of its author alone and not necessarily those of the ICRC.
1 « Une lecture sur la Convention de Genève à l’institut de France », Bulletin International des Sociétés de Secours aux Militaires Blessés, Comité International de la Croix-Rouge, Vol. 1, No. 1, (1869), p. 8.
2 See forthcoming article by this author entitled “150 years of ICRC commitment with academics to uphold humanity in armed conflict”.
3 E. Kuster, “Promoting the Teaching of IHL in Universities: Overview, Successes and Challenges of the ICRC’s Approach”, in Dražan Djukić and Niccolò Pons (Eds.), “The Companion to International Humanitarian Law”, International Humanitarian Law Series, Vol. 55, Brill, 2018, pp. 3-38. Also available at:  (consulted 18.10.2019).
4 « Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Supérieur (CAMES) ». For further details, see: (consulted 18.10.2019).
5 See “International humanitarian law, training activities”, handout, ICRC, 2019. Available at: (consulted 18.10.2019).
6 “Advanced IHL Seminar for Lecturers and Researchers”. For further details, see: (consulted 18.10.2019).
7 This workshop was organized by this author in partnership with the Graduate Institute as part of the Conflict and Fragility Management course addressed to international development professionals. For further details, see: (consulted 18.10.2019).
8 See E. Kuster and G. Dvalaze, “Why educating students on humanitarian norms and value matters”, Humanitarian Law & Policy, 2016, (consulted 18.10.2019).
9 “Jean-Pictet Competition”, web page, CCJP, 2019: (consulted 18.10.2019).
10 “Introduction to International Humanitarian Law (IHL)”, e-learning course, ICRC, 2019: (consulted 18.10.2019).
11 N. Melzer, E. Kuster (Coord.), International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction, ICRC, 2016. Available at: (consulted 18.10.2019).
12 M. Sassòli, A. Bouvier, A. Quintin, J. Grignon, How does law protect in war?, ICRC, 2014: (consulted 18.10.2019).
13 See “Learning and teaching IHL”, web page, ICRC, 2019 : (consulted 18.10.2019).
14 For further details, see “IHL App : International Humanitarian Law in your pocket”, web page, ICRC, 2019 : (consulted 18.10.2019).
15 Prof. Fannie Lafontaine, joined later by Prof. Julia Grignon, both former participants in the Pictet Competition, established the Clinique de droit international pénal et humanitaire (CDIPH) within the law Faculty of Laval University. For further details, see: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
16 Prof Emiliano Buis, also a former participant in the Pictet Competition, founded the Observatory of International Humanitarian Law within the Law Faculty of the University of Buenos Aires. For further details, see: (consulted on 08.10.2019). He also currently serves in the Editorial Committee of the International Review of the Red Cross.
17 The Centre for International Humanitarian Law and International Organizations within the Faculty of Political Sciences, Belgrade University, was founded by former participants in the ICRC’s academic programme, and with the support of the ICRC and the Serbian Red Cross. See: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
18 The « Centre Africain de droit international pénal et humanitaire » (CADIPH) was founded by Prof. Emile Ouedraogo and Prof. Médard Kienou, two Alumni from the Geneva Academy of international humanitarian law and human rights. The Geneva Academy is itself a joint academic centre established by the University of Geneva (Faculty of Law) and the Graduate Institute with the support of the ICRC. See: and (both consulted on 18.10.2019).
19 The Great Lakes Regional Training Programme in International Humanitarian law and Human Rights was established in 2013 by Mr. Providence Walupakah, Dr. Benjamin Traore and Dr. Elvis Mbembé, the two formers being Alumni from the Geneva Academy (see note 19). For further details, see: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
20 Guidelines on investigating violations of IHL: law, policy, and good practice, ICRC/Geneva Academy, 2019. Available at: (consulted on 08.10.2019).
21 See “Our Strategic Adviser on IHL Briefed the UN Security Council on the Geneva Conventions”, article, Geneva Academy, 2019: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
22 instances of respect to teach IHL by changing this narrative. See « IHL in Action », ICRC, 2017: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
23 As an example, see ICRC, Annual Report 2018, ICRC, 2019. Available at: (consulted on 18.10.2019).
24 In that respect, academics are encouraged to consult the International Review of the Red Cross regularly, as its themes are selected carefully to match current humanitarian issues in armed conflicts: (consulted on 08.10.2019).
25 See for instance Displacement in times of armed conflict: How international humanitarian law protects in war, and why it matters, ICRC, 2019. Available at: (consulted on 18.10.2019).


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