Australia: How is IHL relevant in modern humanitarian contexts?

On 29 September the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Australia hosted a symposium in Canberra to explore the relevance of international humanitarian law in modern humanitarian contexts. 

This half-day panel event featured speakers from a diverse range of backgrounds including academics, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) practitioners and humanitarians. Sub-themes of the event included "IHL and the challenges of modern armed conflict" and "Encouraging respect for IHL: challenges and good practice". MSF Legal Director Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier opened the discussion by giving an overview of the key challenges she believes humanitarian action and IHL currently face. Some of these challenges include what she considers to be a disconnect between domestic laws and IHL and the criminalisation of humanitarian action in certain contexts of modern armed conflict. Newly emerged challenges to IHL and humanitarian action prompted Françoise to write a third edition of her Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law.

Panellists discussed challenges and good practices occuring before, during and after conflict. Commodore David Letts of the Royal Australian Navy spoke on the ways IHL is addressed by the military and the variances which exist among armed forces, highlighting the importance of legal training for the military as being essential in respect for IHL during hostilities. Beth Eggleston, Director, Humanitarian Advisory Group, outlined some of the problems that can be encountered if there is a blurring of lines between military and humanitarian work in conflict. Anne Sheehan, Assistant Secretary, International Law and Security Branch, Attorney-General's Department, addressed the challenges of protecting people in detention in non-international armed conflict and the need to strengthen such protection. Associate Professor Sarah Williams, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, identified challenges in the enforcement of breaches of IHL via the International Criminal Court, as well as  issues that she sees as likely influencing the way in which the Court may take on IHL cases in the future.

In addition to these thought-provoking issues, Netta Goussac from the ICRC Australia Mission identified lack of respect for IHL as the single most important challenge facing IHL today, particularly in the context of an unprecedented number of concurrent crises around the world. She said "The main problem in contemporary armed conflicts is not the lack of norms but rather the widespread flouting of those that already exist. Egregious violations of IHL are being committed every day, both by States and non-State parties."

The event was concluded by a lively Q+A, which showed a keen interest amongst the diverse audience members and provided an opportunity for panellists to further expand on their topics.