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.*

A demobilized child soldier in a rebel camp in the Central African Republic. Photo by Pierre Holtz of UNICEF

A demobilized child soldier in a rebel camp in the Central African Republic. Photo by Pierre Holtz of UNICEF

Islamic State (IS) militants are trafficking Yazidi women and children for sex during their campaign across Iraq and Syria. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan have led to poverty and insecurity, making the country a valuable resource for human traffickers. Lebanon struggles to prevent the trafficking of Syrians fleeing the conflict within its borders.  Armed conflict and human trafficking frequently coincide.

While the world sought to limit the recourse to war and even proscribe it, realists recognized the need to regulate the conduct of hostilities when all else failed. So we created rules that govern how wars are fought. International law protects those who are not fighting in war—particularly civilians—through the Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols, other relevant treaties, and customary international law.

These laws protect civilians from enforced prostitution, forced labor, compelled service in hostile armed forces, and other forms of slavery resulting from armed conflict. Provisions on forced labor in the Third Geneva Convention  and Fourth Geneva Convention  reveal a prohibition on slavery in armed conflict while Article 4 of Additional Protocol II prohibits slavery and enforced prostitution in non-international armed conflicts. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 76 of Additional Protocol I also prohibit enforced prostitution by extending special protections to women. In addition, a non-binding ICRC compilation of customary law identifies a plethora of military manuals, international instruments, legislation, case law, and UN resolutions that forbid many forms of slavery in armed conflict. Under the Rome Statute, human trafficking in armed conflict can also be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a violation of international criminal law.

But rules to protect civilians, ultimately, do not immunize them from the effects of armed conflict. When civilians live in an area afflicted by armed conflict, they face a loss of economic opportunities, a lack of access to justice, and decreased security. Aside from being susceptible to these vulnerabilities, women and children are particularly at risk of exploitation through human trafficking.

Human trafficking is basically modern day slavery—people exploiting others through forced labor, domestic servitude, and sexual slavery. At the recent Human Trafficking and Armed Conflict conference hosted by the American Red Cross under the Chatham House Rule, panelists noted that traffickers may entice victims by promising a better life away from the conflict or they may abduct civilians living in the chaos of conflict. Indeed, armed groups have been known to engage in human trafficking—using child soldiers or enslaving civilians for labor or sex. Importantly, conflict itself can also make populations vulnerable to criminal groups that are not involved in the fighting but actively prey on the victims of conflict.

The Human Trafficking and Armed Conflict conference focused on the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to resolving human trafficking in armed conflict. Panelists and participants discussed the importance of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership in addressing human trafficking during armed conflict. William Eggers of Deloitte wrapped up the day by facilitating an innovative session on opportunities for multi-sectoral cooperation to address human trafficking. Multi-sectoral cooperation organizes actors from non-governmental organizations, private businesses, and government agencies to develop creative solutions on preventing, protecting, and prosecuting human trafficking. Developing apps to identify high trafficking in conflict zones, promoting campaigns to eliminate market reliance on trafficking victims, and providing resources for advocates to effectively prosecute traffickers are potential results of multi-sectoral cooperation. By combining monetary, programming, and technological resources, these actors can expand the reach and increase the effectiveness of programs that address human trafficking in armed conflict.

If you are interested in joining the conversation on human trafficking, Christie Edwards, Director of International Humanitarian Law at the American Red Cross, will moderate “Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling” on Thursday, October 16th at 6pm. Sponsored by the American Society of International Law’s Women in International Law Interest Group, the event will feature legal practitioner Anne Gallagher and professor Dina Haynes. This fireside chat will discuss the intersection between smuggling and trafficking, positive contributions in international law, and how to address critical gaps and weaknesses in the law.

World War I trench at Sanctuary Wood, Belgium.

World War I trench at Sanctuary Wood, Belgium.

The past year has been a reminder of the brutality of modern armed conflicts. The killing of U.S. and British hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over contested airspace in Ukraine, and the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, are but three recent examples of the horrible things that can happen to humanity in the midst of war. It is a lesson that keeps repeating itself.

Exactly 150 years ago, in the fall of 1864, Sherman’s March to the Sea laid waste to the Confederate economy during the American Civil War. Known as the hard-war strategy, this scorched-Earth campaign was characterized as merciless. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” General Sherman noted after ordering the evacuation of the city of Atlanta, which he would later burn to the ground, “I will answer that war is war.”

Fifty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, it took less than three months for an estimated one million soldiers to be killed or wounded in an unintentional Race to the Sea. The exhausted armies of Germany, France, Belgium and Britain then settled into the trench warfare that would dominate their war effort for the remainder of the Great War and decimate an entire generation.

These wars of the past – and the wars of today – serve as a reminder not only of the cruelty of war, but of the need to do what we can to minimize harm when war strikes.

Today we are proud to re-introduce Humanity in the Midst of War, the American Red Cross’s blog about International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the rational effort to have warring parties show restraint during armed conflicts by sparing and protecting civilians and persons out of combat. This blog is about the fact that there are rules that regulate war—rules like the ones that compelled General Sherman and countless other commanders in history, to order their troops to spare persons in invaded territory. It is also about the story of an idea—that non-combatants bearing the Red Cross or Red Crescent (or Red Crystal) should be able to show humanity amidst inhumanity and provide neutral and impartial aid to war victims. This is the logic behind the modern laws of war contained in the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements.

Over the past year, in response to advancements in technology and geopolitical changes, the IHL team at the American Red Cross revamped its educational programs and public events. We now provide:

  • Day-long trainings to government, press, and nonprofit professionals, explaining the rules designed to protect civilians in wartime;
  • Weekend workshops for law and graduate students across the United States to engage aspiring young professionals with the rule of law and the international system; and
  • Training for U.S. youth through the IHL Action Campaign.

Together with our other public events and outreach, and the resources on our website, these projects aim to disseminate IHL, as required by the Geneva Conventions.

Starting today, Humanity in the Midst of War will incorporate forward-thinking and creative new posts on substantive issues in IHL. Our editors, staff and guest bloggers will roll out blog posts on a regular basis explaining the fundamental principles of IHL, discussing significant developments in its body and practice, sharing details about current educational and dissemination projects, and expanding on legal issues at the forefront of modern warfare. Our aim is to become an open forum to share knowledge, answer questions, and create dialogue, while reaching a broad audience across all sectors—from lay persons to professionals.

Today, on the centennial of World War I, it has become almost impossible to keep track of all the armed conflicts happening around the world. The UN reports, however, that conflict has driven the number of forcibly displaced persons to over 50 million, a figure not seen since the end of the Second World War. It is up to us, an engaged global citizenry, to promote the lessons that inspired the Geneva Conventions. It is up to us, to remember that war happens, but it has limits.


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