Iraq: Spreading knowledge of international humanitarian law

12-08-2013 Interview

The Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols and customary law constitute the core of international humanitarian law. The ICRC has been working in Iraq since 1980 and has been promoting respect for international humanitarian law in the conflicts that have ravaged the country.


A Peshmergha officer speaks to an ICRC delegate during the international humanitarian law training session. 

Kirkuk, Iraq.
A Peshmergha officer speaks to an ICRC delegate during the international humanitarian law training session.

Currently, the ICRC is supporting information sessions for senior officers of the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdistan Peshmerga and Asayish forces. We are also in regular contact with universities, supporting efforts to include the study of international humanitarian law in their curricula, and have just organized an international humanitarian law competition for law students in Iraqi Kurdistan.

We asked practitioners from different parts of Iraq how they saw international humanitarian law and its application in contemporary armed conflict.

Brigadier General Jihad Shehab Mohammad

Brigadier General Jihad is the deputy commander of the Centre for Military Values, Principles and Leadership Development of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence in Baghdad. Since 2007, the ICRC has been providing support for the training of Iraqi army officers in international humanitarian law with the aim of raising their awareness of the rules of engagement and how those rules can be applied in combat situations. Brigadier General Jihad is the longest-serving instructor at the Centre.


Centre for Military Values, Principles and Leadership Development, Baghdad, Iraq.
Brigadier General Jihad Shehab Mohammad explains the origins of the red cross emblem to trainees.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek / v-p-iq-e-01150

"My experience as an instructor at the Centre began in 2007. The response from the officers was overwhelming. They were looking for new sources of information about the rules of engagement, how to deal with civilians, prisoners and wounded people, private civilian property, and protected civilian objects such as hospitals, water and electricity installations, and places of worship.

Before 2003, I used to hear about the Geneva Conventions only through the media. We had military training, but no preparation regarding the law of armed conflict or the rules of engagement. We knew that the Conventions dealt with prisoners of war and wounded combatants at sea and in the field but we had no means of learning more about them. Our sources were limited to the wars experienced by the Iraqi army in the previous decades. Yet we knew that prisoners of war should be treated humanely and that their rights should be preserved.

Here at the Centre, we often get mixed reactions about international humanitarian law from our trainees. The majority are in favour of complying with the rules set out in the law but some find them inapplicable in the current Iraqi situation, especially in view of the deterioration in security. Our role here is to explain that our duty is simply to apply the laws, which clearly say what a military force may and may not do, and to leave other issues to the judicial authorities. We stress these points especially with the commanders who are the decision-makers in the field.

In today’s world, however, such rules are applied differently in different places. Their application also depends on the nature of war, the nature of the enemy and the nature of the military."

Colonel Ismael Mohammed Semco

Colonel Ismael is the assistant director and investigation officer of the Kurdistan Asayish security forces in Kirkuk. He first learnt about the Geneva Conventions during his studies in Erbil, northern Iraq, and has regularly attended ICRC information sessions on international humanitarian law since then.

"The ICRC training sessions have contributed to my understanding of international humanitarian law, its objectives and the extent of its impact on conflicts, especially as far as military operations and the protection of civilians are concerned.

When I visit our places of detention, I remind my officers about the humanitarian aspects of dealing with detainees and how important a role this can play in defusing a conflict. Humanitarian feelings at the personal level can generate a positive impression among detainees and also help us enhance our relations with them.

Most of my colleagues who attended the ICRC sessions continue to discuss what they learned. I also found out that many of them do apply the humanitarian principles in their daily work.

The nature of war has changed. New entities are involved in military operations and there are many violations that go without real punishment.

One thing the ICRC could do to improve its efforts in this area would be to set up an international satellite channel to provide information all over the world about its activities and about international humanitarian law. Also, more sessions and workshops should be held for the armed forces in Iraq – especially for lower-ranking officers, who are directly in charge of implementing the law."

Brigadier General Sherko Fateh Showani

Brigadier General Sherko is the commander of the First Brigade of Kurdistan Peshmerga forces in Garahangeer, near Kirkuk. He first got to know the Geneva Conventions at the Military College. Brigadier General Sherko also participated in several ICRC-organized courses on international humanitarian law.


Erbil, Iraq.
Peshmergha officers receive certificates after completing the course on international humanitarian law at the Military Academy.
© ICRC / P. Krzysiek / v-p-iq-e-01151

"In the heat of battle it is sometimes difficult to comply with international humanitarian law, for instance when you face attacks from civilian houses. In general, though, we feel that international humanitarian law does have an impact on the conduct of military operations.

During the training sessions on international humanitarian law, many of our students develop a strong interest in the subject from the humanitarian point of view. Some of them ask for more workshops on how to apply these rules in a practical way. I believe that an honest dialogue between the officers about these rules can serve as a form of encouragement.

There is a need to boost efforts to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law in order to benefit all human beings and protect their dignity. We also need to focus on education to ensure that certain standards are embedded in the training curricula."

Dr Haidar Kadhim Abed Ali Hamza Al-Khaffaji

Dr Haidar is a professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Babylon and dean of the Faculty of Law at the Islamic University in Babil. He decided to specialize in international humanitarian law because, as he says, the importance of that body of law in a country like Iraq cannot be overestimated.

"I believe that in a country like Iraq, which has been in conflict for years, it is essential that the law schools teach international humanitarian law as a separate subject at the master’s and doctoral levels.

Many students get confused about the nature and true meaning of international humanitarian law, because law schools do not adequately focus on it. The ICRC-sponsored international humanitarian law research competition in Najaf in 2009 was an important means of drawing students’ attention to the importance of international humanitarian law, especially in the Iraqi context.

Breaches of international humanitarian law are common in our context despite the fact that Islam also sets out clear rules regarding the behaviour of combatants in armed conflict. The reason behind this might be that there is no effective system in place to monitor violations and put an end to them. Advisers in international humanitarian law should be appointed to ensure compliance, monitor violations and find ways of making offenders accountable for their actions.

Although 64 years have passed since the four Geneva Conventions were adopted, they and the Additional Protocols are still the pillars of international humanitarian law. But the law needs to be adapted and updated to take into account issues such as the production of and trade in technologically advanced weapons."

Sariya Balal

Sariya Balal's thesis on the protection of cultural heritage won her the 2013 international humanitarian law competition organized by the ICRC in cooperation with the 11 law schools in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Sariya Badal Mahmmud from Dohuk University, the winner of the 2013 international humanitarian law competition 

Dohuk, Iraq.
Sariya Badal Mahmood from Dohuk University, the winner of the 2013 international humanitarian law competition, receives her prize from Dr Qassem Ahmad (centre), head of Dohuk University Law School, and Flamerz Mohammed (left), head of the ICRC office in the city.
© ICRC / A. Yassin

"The Geneva Conventions? To be frank, I heard these two words for the first time when America invaded Iraq in 2003, because all the media were talking about them. At the time, I was a secondary-school student and I tried to find out what the Conventions were from books.

If we look at the map of the world, we will find dozens of places where wars and other violence are taking place. Thousands of civilians fall victim, in addition to the civilian properties destroyed, and for me this competition was an opportunity to find out more about international humanitarian law. I decided to write about the protection of cultural objects because I am personally very interested in history and culture. Iraq has a very rich cultural heritage that demonstrates the humanity of Iraqi civilization. Unfortunately, this heritage was targeted during the three recent conflicts in Iraq and nobody has taken care of it. As a small contribution on my part, I wanted to point out that damaging and targeting cultural heritage is not only a violation of international humanitarian law but also a crime against history and civilization.

International humanitarian law is a complete body of law because it covers everything relating to the protection of those not participating in hostilities, and regulates the means and methods of warfare. Unfortunately, thousands of civilians are losing their lives all over the world because parties to conflicts are not complying with IHL. For me, this shows that international humanitarian law has not reached the desired level of impact.

I think most IHL violations in today's conflicts are committed under the pretext of military necessity. This principle should be reviewed with the aim of placing more limits on commanders issuing military orders.

In my view, a different approach is required to promote international humanitarian law in Iraq. Information sessions and the media are good tools for spreading knowledge of the law. But training military and security forces will have more impact on how those taking part in combat behave. I would also suggest that primary schools cover international humanitarian law, so that pupils will have a basic understanding of the topic."