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China: living the law – how IHL is inspiring lives

22-12-2010 Feature

Five people in China talk about what IHL means for them, professionally, academically and personally.

Introduction

Meet five individuals in China who have given international humanitarian law a role in their lives that goes far beyond the law books. From a determined law student to one of the country’s most renowned judges on the international scene, they reveal their passion for IHL.

All five have been involved in the annual IHL Moot Court Competition. The fourth and most recent competition took place in Beijing from 3 to 5 December. Hosted jointly by the ICRC, Renmin University Law School and the Red Cross Society of China, the 2010 competition boasted 22 student teams from universities around China – the highest number ever.

Judge Liu Daqun

Judge Liu Daqun talks with Chinese law students after a seminar at Renmin University Law School for the 2010 IHL Moot Court Competition held in Beijing. 

Judge Liu Daqun talks with Chinese law students after a seminar at Renmin University Law School for the 2010 IHL Moot Court Competition held in Beijing.
© ICRC / C. Lee

As an IHL training seminar ends, a group of young people forms around Judge Liu Daqun. He is visibly enjoying the exchanges with these Chinese law students, and they are clearly thrilled at the opportunity to speak to him in person. After all, he is one of China's most prominent figures in the field of international law.

Daqun has been a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for the last decade, but his illustrious career also includes a period as an ambassador and a leading role in Chinese delegations to international forums.

For the second year in a row, he took time out of his heavy schedule to judge the final round of the annual IHL moot court competition in Beijing.

"It's a fascinating experience. And more of China's law schools are taking part than last year," he said. "I was impressed by the students' interest, their enthusiasm and their devotion to this kind of enterprise."

He advises anyone interested in an IHL-related career to get exposure to practical situations involving the law – experience that he says Chinese students often lack.

"In foreign law schools, students spend much more time in the field. They work as volunteers with NGOs and UN special agencies in hotspots like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Darfur to gain firsthand experience," he explained.

He encourages Chinese students to work as interns or legal assistants at the International Criminal Court, the ICTY or the tribunals for Rwanda, Lebanon and Cambodia "to see for themselves how international justice is conducted."

Song Tianying

As an intern at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Song Tianying from Zhejiang Province says she feels privileged to meet and learn from many who are at the forefront of IHL. 

As an intern at the International Criminal Court at the Hague, Song Tianying from Zhejiang Province says she feels privileged to meet and learn from many who are at the forefront of IHL.
© ICRC / Z. Akcay

As she poses in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) where she is an intern, one can scarcely believe that just two years ago Song Tianying was a beginner as far as IHL is concerned.

In 2008, after serious preparation for the moot court competition in Beijing, she and her two team-mates from China University of Political Science and Law went on to win the event. Impressed with the experience, she continued with the subject. "Mooting opened a whole new world for me," she said. Now a post-graduate law student, she is currently interning at the ICC – the permanent international court established to try the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, including war crimes.

Tianying says she has access to “real-time updates” on IHL developments and ongoing cases – especially with the court being based at The Hague, which also hosts the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. “I also have the privilege of meeting and learning from many of the leading personalities in the field of IHL,” said Tianying. "So far it’s been a most enriching experience."

She feels that internships and other hands-on experience are important for students interested in a career in IHL. "It's essential to cultivate an international perspective as well as expertise in the law itself."

Professor Suzannah Linton

University of Hong Kong law professor Suzannah Linton says she is driven by the principles behind IHL, leading to her extensive work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere. 

University of Hong Kong law professor Suzannah Linton says she is driven by the principles behind IHL, leading to her extensive work in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere.
© ICRC / C. Lee

Suzannah Linton's brush with history started with a phone call this September. Two weeks before, the University of Hong Kong law professor had launched an appeal in the local media to find people involved in the now-forgotten war crimes trials held in Hong Kong after World War II.

The nephew of a man who had testified at the trials contacted her with more details, including the torture that his uncle had suffered. The call provided Professor Linton with an interesting lead for her research project on Hong Kong’s 1946-1948 war crimes trials. After finding the case file late one night, she painstakingly went through the documents, page by page, until she found a transcript of the harrowing testimony by the uncle, who was about 20 years old at the time. He spoke of being taken into custody and badly tortured by a Japanese Kempeitai (military police) officer. These statements would form part of a strong case that would eventually lead to the police officer's conviction.

“That was a goose-pimples-down-the-neck moment, where I knew that I had found something important, something historic,” she said. “The horror of one person’s experiences of cruelty, his participation in a historic judicial process that lay forgotten in the files. At that moment, the past and present connected. The past came to life through my project. That was a lawyer’s Eureka moment!”

Later, she shared these transcripts with the family. She also took a statement from the uncle himself – half a century later.

“He could still remember it vividly, even though he was in his late 80s. He showed me the scars on his body,” she said. “But it was remarkable. He said, ‘I understand it happened because of the circumstances of the time.’ He didn’t hate then and he doesn't hate now. This man has compassion.”

For Professor Linton, who recently served as a judge in the final round of the 2010 IHL Moot Court Competition in Beijing, such experiences are important reminders of what armed conflict can drive people to do.

With her extensive field experience in conflict and post-conflict situations, she herself has encountered IHL in many contexts, in the Balkans, Cambodia, East Timor and elsewhere.

Recalling another unforgettable experience, Linton’s expression becomes sombre. She talks about the challenges of her work in the late 1990s, when she helped rebuild the judicial and governance system in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The devastating conflict left a painful legacy in the country long after the peace accords were signed.

Posted there with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), her work involved breaking through the barriers of a divided society, to allow refugees and displaced people “to regain their homes, to regain their jobs and to try to rebuild their lives.” Judicial and government institutions were not yet functioning properly and part of her job was to make them work fairly and without discrimination.

“I have very powerful memories of the painful process of making the courts work, of getting people back in their jobs, of people walking into the homes from which they had been violently evicted,” she says, her face suddenly glowing. “It was about reversing ‘ethnic cleansing’. It is very rewarding to take part in these processes, to know as a human being that you have helped another human being. What is also important in these challenging situations is to know that there are other like-minded people working this way.”

She draws inspiration from this kind of invisible work that doesn’t make the headlines and from the “really brave and resilient” survivors of armed conflict who are “strong enough to fight to rebuild their lives in places where very sad things have taken place.”

These factors explain why IHL has become the focus of her life in many ways. “In armed conflict, the vulnerability of humanity is remarkable and that touches me deeply. It inspires me to work on the prevention of armed conflict, the punishment of atrocities and the reconstruction of societies after armed conflict.”

Wang Qifan

Law student Wang Qifan (centre) coached the team from China University of Political Science and Law at the 2010 IHL Moot Court Competition in Beijing. 

Law student Wang Qifan (centre) coached the team from China University of Political Science and Law at the 2010 IHL Moot Court Competition in Beijing.
© ICRC / C. Lee

While Wang Qifan's friends at law school aim to become high-powered lawyers at China's top law firms, the 22-year-old from Tianjin is driven by her passion to work at international tribunals and organizations concerned with IHL.

At last year's annual IHL Moot Court Competition in Beijing, Qifan won the prize for Best Mooter and went on to take part in the Asia-Pacific regional competition in Hong Kong.

"With my first moot court competition, I connected with IHL. It hit the spot," she said. "I'm very interested in military affairs, war and weapons, but studying IHL exposed me to real cases. I believe I've found the direction of my future career."

Although she still calls herself a "beginner" in IHL, this year presented Qifan with an exceptional opportunity for a law student: to coach the team representing her school, the China University of Political Science and Law, at the Fourth IHL Moot Court Competition in Beijing. The professor normally in charge was called away for other business, leaving Qifan to lead the team. And they did well, coming second in a field of 22 teams from around China and advancing to the 2011 Asia-Pacific regional, just like Qifan herself did last year.

"This is the battlefield I know well, filled with wonderful memories and enthusiastic expectations," she said of her moot court experiences.

When asked about IHL "in the real world" her eyes grow wide and her voice carries her excitement. She remembers a friend telling her about the experience of interning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. "I felt like … I had a connection with a huge event that was changing history, something you read about in the news," she said. "I am going to be involved in this kind of work."

Michael Liu

Currently a Legal Officer at the ICRC's Regional Delegation for East Asia, Michael Liu was part of the team that won the first IHL Moot Court Competition ever held in mainland China. 

Currently a Legal Officer at the ICRC's Regional Delegation for East Asia, Michael Liu was part of the team that won the first IHL Moot Court Competition ever held in mainland China.
© ICRC / C. Lee

This year's moot competition was the fourth in the series. So four years later, "where are they now?" What happened to the winners of the first-ever IHL moot court competition held in mainland China? His team-mate is working at a leading Chinese law firm, but you'll find Michael Liu amidst a flurry of activity as a Legal Officer at the ICRC’s Regional Delegation for East Asia. According to him, this should come as no surprise.

“IHL is something you never forget once you've encountered it. It draws you into the core of humanity and the basics of the law. I decided to make IHL my career right after I studied it,” explained Michael, who has a master’s in international law and had already acquired two and a half years of experience as a lawyer prior to joining the ICRC. At the delegation, focuses on how IHL issues correspond with China's domestic legal system.

In the years since he first learned about IHL, Michael has seen a great deal of progress in the advancement of this area of law in China. Back then, the ICRC had just established its regional delegation in Beijing and had started to translate what became probably the only IHL-related publication of its kind available in Chinese at that time.

Since then, a growing number of law schools have introduced IHL into their curricula. “And we saw in-depth discussions on IHL during the academic symposium the ICRC organized recently,” he said, adding that these trends would only continue.

“With China becoming increasingly engaged in international affairs, more and more people will require a knowledge of international law – of which IHL is a part – in order to understand complicated international situations,” said Liu. “We will need to shift our focus from introducing the law to how IHL actually applies in specific cases.“