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Symposium on current topics of IHL in Beijing

On 23 October I had the opportunity to participate in a symposium on ‘Current Issues relating to International Humanitarian Law’ organized by the ICRC and the Chinese Society of International Law and hosted by the Chinese University of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. The symposium was opened by Mr. Li Shishi, President of the Chinese Society of International Law and Thierry Meyrat, Head of Delegation, ICRC Regional Delegation for East Asia, who welcomed the participants. Both of them praised and expressed their commitment for continued cooperation in the future between these two organizations.
In his introductory speech entitled ‘Current ICRC activities related to the application, clarification and development of international humanitarian law’ Dr. Sylvain Vite, legal adviser at the ICRC, outlined four areas of IHL identified by the ICRC as being in need of strengthening:
1)         Protection of persons deprived of liberty;
2)         Implementation of reparations for victims;
3)         Protection of the natural environment;
4)         Protection of internally displaced persons.
It is obvious that these four areas relate mainly to non-international armed conflict. Most of the conflicts around the world involve non-international armed conflict and this area of law is in need of further development. The willingness of States to engage with the ICRC in discussing these issues will condition the fact whether any new instruments or studies will be prepared on these topics in the coming years.
There were four current IHL topics discussed in separate panels during this symposium. The topic of the first panel was ‘Differentiation between armed conflicts and other situations of violence – legal implications for the protection of persons’. Whether a situation of violence constitutes an armed conflict or not determines which rules apply and the protection they provide to the people suffering the consequences of the violence. What do these differences mean for persons caught up in situations of violence? This panel discussed the relation between international humanitarian law, which only applies in armed conflicts, and other legal regimes containing norms applicable in any situation.
‘Civilians on the battlefield – implications for the principle of distinction’ was the title of the second panel. The distinction between persons and objects that can be attacked and others that must be protected from attack is a basic concept of international humanitarian law. The panel looked into the requirements for respecting that distinction, giving particular attention to situations where military objectives are not clearly separated from civilians. It also examined the particular case of civilians actively participating in hostilities. What does the term ‘civilian’ really mean under international humanitarian law? Is it possible that civilians may loose protection from attacks?
The third panel focused on ‘Rules of international humanitarian law governing nuclear weapons’. Recent diplomatic efforts have put nuclear weapons and their proliferation back high on the international agenda. The panel took stock of the latest developments and the opportunities they provide from the perspective of international humanitarian law. Some of the questions dealt with included what is the legal framework under international humanitarian law applying to nuclear weapons and how can that framework be strengthened?
The topic of the last panel was ‘Computer network attacks and the international humanitarian law’. Computer network attacks (CNA) may have devastating humanitarian consequences. The panel explored possible legal restriction under IHL applying to the use of CNA. How does IHL regulate the use of CNA?
The topics were introduced by invited speakers, before questions and comments were asked by the participants during the discussion session. It was not an easy task for the moderators of the respective panels, in view of the number of issues raised by these topics and the number of questions asked by an audience composed mainly of senior scholars and practitioners.
Since I am at this I’d like to attract the reader’s attention with regard to an interesting project of the ICRC, namely that of publishing a new edition of the commentaries on the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. While the contours of such a project remain to be defined by the head of the project (being selected in the meanwhile) and the ICRC Steering Committee for the project, the status of this work, once it is finished and published, will be open to discussion. To a large extent it was the practice of the international and internationalized courts and tribunals in prosecuting war crimes that made such a project necessary. The format of these commentaries and the methodological approach used in preparing them will be of course important to discussions relating to the weight to be given to them. Of course, being involved in such a project and writing a part of these commentaries would be quite an experience.

One Comment

  1. Moses Trostel Moses Trostel 16 May 2011

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