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Better law for the world’s conflicts - Irish Red Cross conference

25-10-2013 Feature

Revulsion at the shocking deaths of hundreds in an aerial bombardment by German and Italian forces inspired Picasso’s searing picture of the Spanish town of Guernica. The bombing provoked outrage across Europe that the prohibitions established by international law were bypassed by what was then a new and deadlier form of warfare, remarked Chatham House’s Louise Arimatsu at the start of the Irish Red Cross’s annual conference on international humanitarian law.


Louise Arimatsu at the annual Irish Red Cross IHL conference 

Dr Louise Arimatsu of Chatham House's International Law Programme
© Irish Red Cross / Sean Moore

Guernica was also a reminder that the laws of war must constantly be examined to ensure they remain relevant to modern conflict. Ever since the Geneva Conventions of 1949 sought to limit the impact of conflict on civilians, the sick and the wounded, their protections have been enhanced by new measures, in response to technological change and fresh recognition that gaps in the law exist. And organizations like the ICRC have constantly sought to reinforce the applicability of the law in the face of efforts by states and armed groups to exclude some from its reach, Arimatsu noted.  


Donal Forde, Secretary General of the Irish Red Cross 

Donal Forde, Secretary General of the Irish Red Cross, addresses the conference at the Royal Irish Academy.
© Irish Red Cross / Sean Moore

The day-long conference in Dublin supported by the ICRC tackled some of the current challenges to the relevance and applicability of IHL.  

Speakers debated the reach of IHL, noting that extending its geographical scope too broadly can have the perverse consequence of making civilians more vulnerable to harm, while limiting it too arbitrarily might ignore the reality of conflict and encourage state oppression. And in an age of cross-border drone strikes are international lawyers too eager to explain away a de facto act of aggression into another state’s territory as a “spill-over” conflict? Should the use of armed force beyond a national zone of conflict be more thoroughly stigmatised, to prevent the emergence of a global battlefield?

Audience at the Irish Red Cross/ICRC IHL conference in Dublin October 2013 

© Irish Red Cross / Sean Moore

The concept of a borderless war on terror that engulfs the globe sits uneasily with the historical norm that states have preferred to combat terrorism, even on a transnational basis, via domestic criminal statutes.  The notion of terrorism itself is subject to debate, with no agreed definition to guide the applicability of an international legal regime, it was noted.

Speakers from academia, the military and the Red Cross Movement also examined if there was sufficient legal protection for the millions of people left homeless within their own countries by modern conflict, and who do not benefit from rules protecting refugees. And are so-called humanitarian interventions by Western military forces under the rubric of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine compatible with IHL?     

Rogier Bartels of the International Criminal Court and Netherlands Defence Academy  

Rogier Bartels of the International Criminal Court.
© Irish Red Cross / Sean Moore

The conference concluded with discussion on whether new technology demands a revision of the law. Autonomous weapons, theoretically capable of taking life or death decisions themselves, are being conceived by military planners. But could they be used legally, given that they appear incapable of ever being able to make fine judgements of proportionality? If the answer is no then the threat of them disappears, assuming that states abide by the rules that no weapon can be developed and deployed that cannot meet the rules of IHL. That point underscored the final speaker’s argument that effective application of current international humanitarian law is the challenge, not the development of new laws for each and every weapon or situation.