An information handout arguing for a petition to stop US rhetoric with North Korea.

An information handout arguing for a petition to stop US rhetoric with North Korea.

Leaving Robarts Library a few days ago, I was approached by a gentleman advocating for a ‘Petition for Peace in Korea’. The man spoke of his fears of nuclear annihilation from living through the Cold War and his growing concern with the nuclear rhetoric between the United States and the Democratic Republic of North Korea today. His petition called on the Government of Canada to pressure the United States to adopt a peace treaty with the DPRK.

If only peace were so easy.

Unfortunately, it seems as though conflict is inevitable in our world. Thankfully, at the very least, there is a robust set of internationally-acknowledged rules in place to protect civilian populations in conflict situations, known as International Humanitarian Law. To be honest, I didn’t even know what ‘IHL’ stood for when I registered for the conference. However, when I learned about the opportunity to attend, I couldn’t pass it up. (If you read my previous blog post, you’d understand why...)

The title slide of the 2017 Canadian Red Cross IHL Confernece.

The title slide of the 2017 Canadian Red Cross IHL Confernece hosted at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

The 2017 Canadian Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Conference focused on the theme of ‘Order in Chaos: The Evolution of Law Governing Armed Conflict’. The conference taught me about the importance of continued development of international humanitarian law and introduced some of the challenges, including encouraging compliance with non-state actors. Not only did I gain an understanding and appreciation of IHL, but I was able to apply the theories and concepts I’ve learned in PCJ260 to the discussions at the conference.

IHL is a set of rules which seek to limit the effects of armed conflict in an attempt to find the balance between military force and humanity. Provisions include guaranteeing humanitarian access for civilians in need, special protection for vulnerable populations, prohibition on indiscriminate attacks, and restrictions on certain weapons. However, while quite robust, Jonathan Somer, the interim Senior Legal Advisor with the Canadian Red Cross, was quick to point out that IHL is merely a band-aid solution. It cannot resolve conflict, but hopes to limit its negative effects, especially for civilian populations.

However, suffering seems to be inevitable in any armed conflict. Every time you open a newspaper or scroll through a Twitter feed there always seems to be horrific accounts of violence committed against innocent civilians. Hence, in my perspective, the only way to truly advance humanitarian ideals would be to prevent conflict from occurring at all. While certainly a very optimistic perspective, unfortunately, it does not seem realistic in today’s world. As a result, we must rely on IHL to enforce even the most fundamental human rights in conflict situations.

The problem is that humanitarian law is always one war behind. Lawmakers are continually struggling to update laws and address the ever-changing threats to humanity with the evolution of warfare. Particularly, as of recent, it has become more difficult to find consensus among nations and adopt new treaties. As a result, the Red Cross and other IHL advancement groups must rely on the existing framework to address modern conflict situations today.

This is the challenge we face today. Wars are no longer fought exclusively between nation states, nor are they confined to the battlefield. With the rise of terrorist organizations and other non-state actors, IHL must be updated to reflect the changing strategies and technologies of warfare. As Marco Sassòli, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva, encouraged attendees in his keynote address at the conference, we must recognize the impact of IHL in the past and renew IHL today to protect civilian populations in the conflicts of tomorrow.