February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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International Humanitarian Law: Now’s the Time To Shape the Future

By Jacqueline M. Koch


Christie Edwards, J.D., LL.M., is national director of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) for the Red Cross. She has worked globally on international human rights, international humanitarian law, international development policy, and gender issues for over 15 years.

As director, Edwards leads the organization’s legal education, public, and youth outreach efforts on IHL, directly reaching more than 50,000 people per year with a social reach exceeding 18 million.

In advance of the Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition, an annual event that will be held on March 12–15 in Seattle, we asked Edwards to outline how IHL plays out in our daily lives, here at home and around the world.

Q: Why should we be concerned with IHL and what role do IHL and, by extension, the Geneva Conventions have to play in our daily lives?

A: IHL impacts us all far more than we generally think about. As a starting point, almost everyone is somehow connected to someone in the military, either as a family member, friend or colleague. IHL is intended to protect everyone, be it members of the military who have been captured, civilians caught in the crossfire, or health care workers who are delivering life-saving medical aid.

Q: What is the state of IHL today and how can the U.S. ensure that it is upheld?

A: The United States has a significant international presence and is engaged in a war against a concept: terrorism. This has brought new challenges and greater complexity to the issue of IHL. Nonetheless, the Geneva Conventions are a universally ratified treaty, and to remain a leader in the global community the United States must adhere to the rules and lead by example.

Although we discovered through polls that a significant number of Americans believe that torture can be acceptable, the majority of Americans believe that U.S. laws against torture should be strengthened because any use of torture is immoral and weakens international human rights. And if, as Americans, we seek to take the moral high road, it is our responsibility to ensure that situations such as we saw at Abu Ghraib, for example, don’t ever happen again.

Q: How does the American Red Cross figure into IHL more broadly?

A: The unique role of the American Red Cross rests on our mandate to educate the American public about IHL. The Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement obligate National Societies to “disseminate and assist their governments in disseminating international humanitarian law.” Additionally, the Seville Agreement states that “National Societies shall disseminate, and assist their governments in disseminating IHL.”

Finally, the United States government made a pledge at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999 to “work to broaden and enhance efforts for dissemination of IHL, including in co-operation with the American Red Cross.”

Globalization has reshaped our world, and as a humanitarian actor, the American Red Cross cannot operate in a silo. This has prompted our organization to examine issues beyond our borders, such as targeted attacks on health workers and the use of torture. In the case of health workers, the consequences of violating IHL are devastating. Children don’t get access to vaccines or medicine, they die of largely preventable disease, and the loss of life is staggering.

Q: What are the challenges of engaging the public and how do you overcome them?

A: The rhetoric of fear is a powerful tool, and after the attacks in Paris and California, public attitudes toward the civilians and victims of ISIL and the Syrian conflict, among many others, have not always been receptive. Since the foundation of the Geneva Conventions is to protect civilians in conflict, the efforts by the American Red Cross and our partner National Societies to provide assistance to refugees is exactly in line with our objectives and those whom we have a responsibility to serve. By providing assistance to refugees, we are providing for the needs of the most vulnerable and those who have been deemed eligible for assistance by the U.S. government.

Through our IHL Action Campaign program, engaging with youth has been especially rewarding. We discovered that they are highly receptive to the principles of IHL and readily motivated to become advocates for the protection of civilians in conflict and ensuring that all people are treated with humanity.

We are also mobilizing law students through the Clara Barton IHL Competition, introducing them to legal scholars who lead in this field and providing a front-row view to the challenges and obligations of IHL in real-life situations.

People often talk about planting seeds. I see the Clara Barton Competition as planting acorns. These emerging law professionals who are drawn to IHL will become titans in this field, leading the conversation, they will move and shape the world and they will be spearheading organizations like Amnesty International, agencies such as the State Department and as high-level government advisors, ensuring that the rules of war always protect civilians and those who are most vulnerable during conflict.

I’m passionate about this event, I see it as an opportunity to shape the world view as these professionals step into their careers, and as an extension it’s an opportunity to shape the future of the world.

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