Flag of Turkey on a hill in what many consider to be occupied Cyprus. (CREDIT: Andriy Markov)

2014 has seen its share of global conflicts notable for the emergence of new technology and radical ideologies that change the way war is fought. This post explores the existing law on occupation, and how it is suited for concerns of these modern conflicts. For example, while the self-recognized Israeli occupation of the West Bank may have discernible legal boundaries, the law becomes gray and altogether difficult to enforce in other situations. Western Sahara, Crimea, and Northern Cyprus are all under occupation by foreign powers claiming sovereignty over the territory. Interestingly, these laws only apply between States, so the Islamic State’s actions against the sovereignty of multiple nations is unbounded as a technicality.

The concept of property is the cornerstone of modern civilization, and in international law it is reflected in the borders that delineate the territory upon which States (as countries are called in international law) exert their sovereignty. This sovereignty gives each State the privilege to reap from its land as well as the obligation to care for it. It is the forced taking of this “property” that creates legal challenges. Although international law largely prohibits armed aggression, States inevitably wage wars, and, often take foreign territory. International law has established a series of legal regimes regulating the effects of such taking on the privileges and obligations attached to the territory.

First, annexation is illegal. States cannot take ownership of territories by force. Territories can only be transferred voluntarily, such as through a peace treaty at the cessation of hostilities. Therefore, territories that come under foreign occupation during an armed conflict do not convey the same privileges to their occupiers. For instance, occupying forces usually cannot reap resources from the land and cannot alter local institutions or laws.

Yet much like how enemy combatants may be held as prisoners of war (POWs), territory can be held as a strategic objective during the duration of hostilities. Captured territory deprives the owner of access to roads and ports vital to supplies and natural resources vital to the war effort. We saw this during the Korean War, when United Nations forces staged an amphibious landing behind North Korean lines and severed North Korean supply routes. However, as with POWs, these territories must be returned upon the cessation of active hostilities as foreign occupation is a continued form of hostility.

The Fourth Geneva Convention outlines a regime of obligations for the temporary occupying force. This regime balances military necessity with the basic needs of civilians. Often called the conservationist principle, the occupying power has a duty to conserve or maintain the status quo, and is expected to return the land to its sovereign owner in the same condition in which it was taken. Therefore, the occupier must maintain law and order as well as provide for basic necessities like healthcare, education, food, and other supplies.

Despite this well-established legal regime, modern conflicts increasingly strain its enforcement or interpretation. Unlike World War II, which inspired these legal provisions, some modern conflicts have no foreseeable resolution. So even as an occupying power may wish to respect the conservationist approach, it may find itself forced to change the status quo in order to facilitate the natural development of local economies after decades of occupation. Similarly, operations to overthrow authoritarian regimes through armed force and occupation are nevertheless a specific effort to change local institutions against the will of a sovereign government. Such scenarios highlight the weakness of the conservationist principle in the face of modern wars, and reveal an area of the law that is clearly open for development and innovation.

Weekly IHL Update


Monday, October 27, 2014

In the News

Cluster Bombs in Ukraine. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch posted a video discussing possible use of cluster munitions in the conflict in Ukraine. The Ukrainian armed forces denied use of these indiscriminate weapons, which are banned by most countries thanks to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Generally, use of cluster munitions raises concerns because of the indiscriminate effects of unexploded ordnance.

Ongoing Violence in Libya. It has been over three years since Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was killed but conflict continues between pro-government forces and Islamist militias. The death toll is rising as violence persists throughout Libya and any potential resolution faces a number of significant challenges due to the number of factions and the international response to the conflict.

#BringBackOurGirls Continues. Although Nigeria and Boko Haram apparently reached a ceasefire and agreed on the release of 200 girls kidnapped earlier this year, it looks as if the group may have abducted more women and girls this past week in northeast Nigeria. A successful truce between the government in Abuja and the militant Islamist group is now questionable.

Around the Web

Children in Conflict. This past week the ICRC released a video discussing the challenges for children living in South Sudan, particularly recruitment into armed groups, separation from family members, and lack of educational opportunities. The conflict in South Sudan is a target country of the Children, Not Soldiers campaign, which seeks to end the recruitment and use of children in armed forces throughout the world.

Friday Night Movie Night. Sundance award-winning film, E-Team, is now available on Netflix and in select theaters. The documentary, hailed as a “spellbinding story” and the “ultimate human rights activist documentary,” follows four investigators as they work to find and stop human rights abuses in conflict zones around the world.

On the Blog

Building a Case Against the Islamic State. Growing allegations about the atrocities committed by Islamic State (IS) militants led the United Nations to investigate and report on potential war crimes in the region. In the first of our series on the application of international humanitarian law to IS actions, we discuss the international criminal mechanisms that may be in play.


*Inclusion in our “Weekly IHL Update” does not mean that the American Red Cross endorses or agrees with the views and opinions expressed.*



The United Nations issued a report earlier this month, detailing atrocities linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. According to the report, many of the violations of international humanitarian law attributed to IS and associated armed groups may amount to war crimes. Information gathered by the UN through interviews and observation in Iraq suggests that the IS has carried out attacks deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure with the intention of killing and wounding civilians. If corroborated, such actions are a violation of the principle of distinction, forbidding making civilians the object of attack. Moreover, these actions would rise to the level of war crimes, which are serious violations of international humanitarian law or IHL – the law of war – contained in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949, along with the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (Article 8), provide the legal framework to define war crimes. Certain grave breaches of international humanitarian law were prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and are considered war crimes. An ICRC study best identifies these as serious violations of international humanitarian law which endanger protected persons or objects or breach important values.

The United Nations report details a number of violations of international humanitarian law attributed to IS, such as engaging in “executions and targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children, forced recruitment of children, destruction or desecration of places of religious or cultural significance, wanton destruction and looting of property, and denial of fundamental freedoms.” These actions constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes.

Under international law, persons who are individually criminally responsible for the commission of war crimes may be prosecuted. Britain has been financing and supporting investigative efforts aimed at finding evidence for potential future war crime prosecutions. This team of experts is working in Syria to understand the command structure of IS. The chief investigator of this group, who remains anonymous for security reasons, stated that the investigation is seeking “the highest-level members of IS.” In addition to this team, the United Nations also sent its own independent investigators to Iraq to examine crimes allegedly being committed by IS.

A major challenge to the prosecution of war crimes is determining the chain of command within a militant group in order to attribute the crimes to a leader who bears the ultimate responsibility for the crimes committed. This is why the investigation team on the ground in Syria is looking to “understand [IS’s] system, their techniques, their roles, so [they] can build the chain of command.” So far, the investigators have uncovered a great deal of information about the structure and leadership of the IS and has found that IS is a very structured and disciplined organization.

Due to the shrouded command structure of non-state actors such as IS, it is extremely difficult to build a case against those ultimately responsible for violations of international humanitarian law. The work being done by investigators in the field is the first step of many towards prosecution and, ultimately, criminal punishment for the atrocities being committed in Iraq and Syria against the civilian population.

Weekly IHL Update

Option 1

Monday, October 20, 2014

In the News

This week President Barack Obama announced that the operation against the Islamic State will now be called Operation Inherent Resolve. This week the US launched airstrikes on Islamic State fighters near the Syrian city of Kobani in an effort to push the militants out of the city. Meanwhile, the Islamic State released a video vowing to avenge “every drop of blood spilt” by the U.S. led coalition in Operation Inherent Resolve and increased bombings in Baghdad. There have been multiple car bombings in Baghdad throughout the week killing more than 40 civilians and wounding at least 100. The United Nations reported that at least 1,119 Iraqis, majority civilians, were killed in September in relation to the ongoing hostilities with the Islamic State. But while ISIS is, deservedly, receiving a lot of press right now, there are many other areas of the world facing humanitarian suffering.

With 31 blue helmet deaths since July 2013, Mali has become the deadliest place for UN peacekeepers. Although French forces intervened last year to fight al-Qaeda linked militants in Mali, insecurity continues in the northern territory due to the presence of multiple militant organizations.

Violence and unrest are increasing in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). At least six people have been killed and hundreds have been forced to flee their homes. Anti-balaka militants engaged in fighting with UN peacekeepers on Wednesday, resulting in the deaths of three militia members and four peacekeepers. Despite the great humanitarian need, the Central African Red Cross has been unable to access areas to aid the wounded, and its staff members have faced threats.

Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels seized more territory in Yemen this week, including a border crossing point near Saudi Arabia. The rebels have been increasing their territorial gains across Yemen since seizing the capital, Sanaa, and forcing Yemen’s President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi to appoint a new government. The increase in rebel controlled territory is worsening the state of instability in Yemen and has raised security concerns in Saudi Arabia as well.

Since October 5, fighting along the Line of Control shared by Pakistan and India in Kashmir has intensified. On Tuesday evening, 4 children were wounded by Indian gunfire which continued Wednesday. This round of cross-border fire has left 20 people dead and has wounded at least 100 people. It is unclear whether India or Pakistan fired first. Both Pakistan and India blame each other for violating the 2003 cease-fire, and there is no sign of a decrease in the tensions between these two states.

Around the Web

Islamic State Victimizing Women, Ethnic Groups. Human Rights Watch issued a report on the continuing human suffering caused by the Islamic State in Iraq, including forced marriage and religious conversion.

Chemical Weapons in Iraq. The New York Times published an insightful piece on how U.S. soldiers discovered and destroyed stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq between 2004 and 2011, the effort to maintain secrecy about these operations, and the inevitable injuries caused by handling chemical weapons.

On the Blog

Games are Phenomenal Teachers. With over 600,000,000 gamers worldwide, the tremendous reach of the gaming industry provides a unique platform to educate on the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict.  Read the recap of our event, Targeting the Rules of War with Video Games, to find out more about the innovative ideas to integrate IHL and video games.

Join the Conversation. And don’t worry if you missed out on the event …we posted a recording of our live stream! To get the full-experience, play some games that incorporate the law of armed conflict, such as Valiant Hearts or Prisoners of War, and watch this review of Spec Ops: The Line.

*Inclusion in our “Weekly IHL Update” does not mean that the American Red Cross endorses or agrees with the views and opinions expressed.*

American Red Cross and ICRC discuss their perspectives on integrating video games and IHL.

American Red Cross and ICRC discuss their perspectives on integrating video games and IHL.

The big take away from the recent American Red Cross event, Targeting the Rules of War with Video Games, is that even if games aren’t designed with an educational purpose, they are still educational in nature. When it comes to video games, they are educators with a tremendous reach.

The $93 billion video game industry reaches massive audiences across every political and geographic boundary. Improvements in technology allow dozens of gamers to play hyper-realistic first-person shooters and other wartime simulations online. Young gamers routinely confront virtual situations in their living rooms previously only experienced by soldiers on the frontlines. This leads to an obvious question: can humanitarians partner with the gaming industry to promote awareness of the rules that govern the conduct of hostilities in armed conflicts? Tuesday’s event sought to find an answer.

Representatives of the American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), set out to share with the audience their organizations’ goal of promoting international humanitarian law (IHL) in video game settings. The goal is education and dissemination of principles of law that have a proven track record of making war more humane.

Having set the stage for the conversation, a panel of industry experts and academics shared their thoughts. Professor Garrison LeMasters of Georgetown pointed out that one hurdle is that “our culture is deeply suspicious of play” and that new media and video games are coming under increased scrutiny. He also observed, however, that games have a long history of simulating war—think of Chess or Go.  That is why it is not surprising that war is a common theme in modern video games as well.

Much about the conversation around games really revolves around rules and consequences for specific decisions. The challenge of incorporating IHL into games to simulate decisions made in the battlefield could therefore be relatively straightforward. “IHL is a ready set of rules to use in game development,” said Professor Lindsay Grace of American University. And a great way to engage an audience with new issues is by “offering new solutions to gamers for traditional problems.”

At the end of the event, and throughout the afternoon, participants had the opportunity to view clips from different video games that demonstrate acts in combat that conflict or comply with IHL. If you missed the event you can still watch our recording of the panelists, try your hand at some of the featured games—Valiant Hearts or Prisoners of War–online, and follow some of the highlighted themes from the event by checking out #roleplayingIHL on Twitter.

This event was part of an ongoing conversation between the American Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the American Society of International Law (ASIL), and gaming industry leaders and academics on the intersection between video games and the laws of war.

Participants try out Valiant Hearts and Prisoner

Participants play Valiant Hearts and Prisoners of War during the event.



RSVP for our upcoming session on video games and international humanitarian law.  Grab some lunch, play video games, and discuss how IHL and video games can work together.

Join us for a conversation about how video games can educate about the laws of war. Industry experts will discuss the integration of humanitarian rules into games simulating armed conflicts and how socially conscious games can inspire attitudinal and behavioral change.


Date: Tuesday, October 14th

Time: 12pm-2pm

Location: American Red Cross Hall of Service at 1730 E St. NW, Washington, D.C.

RSVP: http://www.tinyurl.com/videogamesandlaw


Not in D.C.? You can watch the conference online at http://www.tinyurl.com/roleplayingIHL and follow along on Twitter with #roleplayingIHL.

Weekly Update

Option 3

Monday, October 13, 2014

In the News

When the leadership called off talks with students, protestors returned to the streets of Hong Kong to demand full democratic elections. While the protests were originally peaceful, violence broke out earlier this week and police fired canisters of tear gas into crowds. Protests, even violent ones, do not invoke international humanitarian law but these student-led protests are important to follow as they develop in Hong Kong.

As the situation in Iraq and Syria escalates, questions continue to circle on the legal issues surrounding the conflict with Islamic State (IS).  Do coalition forces need consent from Syria to enter Syrian airspace? Does each mission comply with the rules of war? Is domestic focus on preventing radicalization and prosecuting harming or benefiting IS recruitment? And where is IS getting its ammunition?

In addition to likely beheading a Nigerian Air Force pilot, Boko Haram reportedly beheaded seven individuals this past week. Conflict in Nigeria intensifies as the Boko Haram insurgency becomes “one of the most significant conflicts in the world.” Now the conflict is expanding into Niger, Cameroon, and Chad as the number of casualties and displaced persons increases.

Around the Web

Teaching IHL.  The ICRC provided an update on its programs in the Central African Republic including training armed groups on protecting civilian lives, visiting detainees, and collaborating with the Central African Red Cross.

LL.M. in IHL.  The American Bar Association recently approved a new LL.M. in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law.

Women on the frontlines. Women fighters are not new in armed conflict but renewed attention is directed at the women (and children) who have taken up arms to battle for and against ISIS.

National Cyber Security Awareness month. In honor of National Cyber Security Awareness month, Intercross posted an interesting list of some of its best content on cyber warfare including a video conversation with ICRC experts and an interview with Peter Singer.

On the Blog

War happens, but it has limits. Our blog is taking a new direction (as you may have noticed)!  We are re-purposing this space as a forum to share knowledge, answer questions, and create dialogue on important topics in IHL while still posting about our educational initiatives and how our chapters are disseminating IHL principles. Let us know what you think!

Sold in war. Following our recent human trafficking conference, we are exploring the importance of multi-disciplinary partnerships to prevent, protect, and prosecute human trafficking in armed conflict. Join the conversation and share innovative ideas on how to address the challenge of human trafficking.

On the Calendar

#roleplayingIHL. At 12pm on Tuesday, October 14th, join the American Red Cross for a conference on video games. Seriously! Targeting the Rules of War with Video Games will allow participants to play video games depicting war and listen to industry experts discuss the integration of humanitarian rules into these types of games.  Register for the event now or join the conversation online.

Fireside Chat on Migrants and Trafficking.  On Thursday, October 16th at 6pm, the American Society of International Law’s Women in International Law Interest Group will host a discussion on how international law is used to eradicate human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Don’t forget to register!

Clara Barton IHL Competition. Registration is now open for the 2nd Annual Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition, to be held March 14th-17th in Chicago.  Check out the Competition website to find out more about the application process.



*Inclusion in our “Weekly IHL Update” does not mean that the American Red Cross endorses or agrees with the views and opinions expressed.*


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,210 other followers