Archive for September, 2012


Wednesday was our last day of sessions at the IHL course, and during these we had a chance to look more into implementation and prosecution than in previous sessions, which was quite useful and a nice way to wrap up the course. We had a discussion about the various points of implementation, including during peace and during war, preventive measures and consequences. We also talked about the non-legal elements that contribute to respect for IHL, which for me can be some of the most powerful deterrents to violations and reasons to uphold the law, including feelings of honor and duty, respect and support of the civilian population as a basic level, reciprocity, and to facilitate rebuilding after the conflict ends.

Our final session was on crimes; a fantastic session which really helped me understand the nuances in different types of crime classification and an historical perspective on prosecution. It’s easy to be confused by the differences between war crimes, grave breaches, crimes against humanity, and genocide – often these terms are used interchangeably by those outside of the field of law, but they all carry distinct definitions, based on the type of crime being committed, the circumstances surrounding it, and the victims or targets of the crime. There was also a chance to speak briefly about individual criminal responsibility, that as an individual you have the duty to not only follow lawful orders, but the duty to NOT follow unlawful ones. This is an important point, and one that often gets glazed over, but an important reminder that there is a great deal of responsibility at the individual level for upholding and respecting IHL, not just at the state level, and drives home the importance of IHL dissemination during both wartime and times of peace.

This is my last post on the amazing experience that was my ICRC IHL Course in Warsaw this summer. It’s been a couple of weeks since I got home, and I’ve had even more chance to reflect on my time there. The last few days went by too fast; my fellow participants and I did a great deal of bonding in those ten days and in addition to the outstanding course sessions, guest speakers, and our hosts from the ICRC and Polish Red Cross, I feel as though I’ve made some great friends among my colleagues in the field of IHL, including several from other Red Cross National Societies. I look forward to our continued conversation and collaboration in the coming months and years.

On Monday, we began our second set of classroom sessions, again with some fantastic guest lecturers. To talk about all of them would be too cumbersome here, so I will again hit on two of my personal favorites. Yesterday afternoon we had a fascinating discussion on persons deprived of liberty, including POWs and other detainees, opening with a discussion of whether a particular situation can be neither legal nor illegal, with Guantanamo Bay as the sample. As an American, I felt a bit awkward at first during this discussion, but found that my perspective was shared by others in the room and that my thoughts on the subject were sought specifically because it’s such as controversial issue. We had a long discussion about the various bodies of law that can be applicable in the regulation of detention, including IHL of course, but also Human Rights Law, Refugee Law, national laws, Law of the Sea, International Constitutional Law, and state responsibility for injury to aliens. Some of these were quite new to me, not having a legal background, and I was grateful for this discussion as we talked about the various circumstances under which someone could be detained and how that determines which of the laws apply, and therefore how the person(s) are protected, treated, and possibly prosecuted. One of the things this course as a whole has really helped me to understand is this broad field of international law – I had a tendency to think of IHL in its own bubble, sometimes considering Human Rights Law or Refugee Law, or very specific UN Conventions, but I have a new appreciation now for how broad this field is and how difficult it can be at times to determine what is applicable given the complicated circumstances that arise in real conflicts.

On Tuesday morning, we were treated to a lecture by Marco Sassoli, an esteemed expert in the field of IHL and co-author of an amazing resource: How does law protect in war? Cases, documents, and teaching materials on contemporary practice in international humanitarian law, published by the ICRC. Sassoli spoke about non-international armed conflict (NIAC), which, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is a much stickier conflict classification than international armed conflict (IAC), under which the laws are more elucidated. Many states consider NIAC and IAC to be profoundly different circumstances, but humanitarians made a push for greater inclusion of NIAC in IHL because they felt fighters and other affected by NIAC should be afforded the same protections as those in IAC, which largely resulted in the development of the Additional Protocols of 1977. This session was particularly useful to me, having not had the opportunity in the past to spend much time thinking about the legal differences between persons involved in NIAC vs. IAC, and how those legal differences result in different protections afforded to those affected by conflict. This is made even more complicated by the fact that while the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have been universally ratified, not all states are parties to one or both of the Additional Protocols of 1977, so determining status and protections can be much more complicated than I appreciated before.

Yesterday we went to Auschwitz. I had never been to any of the concentration camps before, and it was a wholly sobering and powerful experience. From the perspective of the IHL course, it really brought a more personal element to the discussions we’ve been having – in the study of such things it is often too easy to slide into hypothetical conversations without keeping at the forefront the notion that we’re talking about real people in extremely difficult circumstances. After our day walking through the actual spaces of Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I think all of us were that much more mindful of the realities of what we’ve been discussing.

It was somewhat surreal for me standing in the same space where such atrocities occurred, where people lived in such conditions. The main part of the tour, at Auschwitz I, was conducted by a guide who spoke through headsets tuned to a particular station. This really suited the mood of the experience, because rather than having large groups of people chatting with each other in groups led by loud, shouting tour guides who needed to be heard above the noise, all you heard in your ears was the relatively soft, calm voice of the guide, and even if you took your headphones off for a moment, none of the visitors were speaking with each other, which left the overall sound level amazingly quiet throughout the whole tour. This seems more appropriate, somehow.

There were two things there that gave me a great deal of pause. First was the rooms full of personal belongings that had been taken from those who were sent to the gas chambers. Piles and piles of pots & pans and other household items, empty suitcases, eyeglasses, shoes, prosthetic limbs, and even human hair. I vaguely remembered having learned or read that everyone’s head was shaved, but seeing it in a big mound like that… Then also there were photos lining several of the hallways. Photos of everyone taken at registration, many of them having transferred in from other camps. This was before they began giving everyone tattoos with their numbers on them, which they apparently started in part because taking photos of everyone was getting too expensive. The pictures, though. Everyone with their head shaved, wearing the same clothes – there was this eerie sense of uniformity, of people being stripped of their individuality. All of the photos had captions created after the fact, for display – with their name, country of origin, occupation, date of arrival, and date of death, if applicable. Which it was in nearly every photo we saw.

At the site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau I was struck several times by the sheer scale of the place – it was enormous. The buildings just kept on going, stretching building after building. And the train tracks, the place of arrival for everyone, right in the middle, near the main guard tower. The trains would stop just inside the entrance, but the tracks kept going, hundreds of feet out  I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited this place, despite of, or because of, how emotional the visit may have been.