The Need to Educate Citizens about International Humanitarian Law and Why It Matters

       For the past eleven years the United States has been engaged in a protracted conflict against terrorism.  Attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists on September 11, 2001 led the United States to launch military operations in Afghanistan, and subsequently, Iraq.  Despite these and other historical military engagements involving the United States, American citizens are generally unaware of the legal ramifications of military action on our nation’s soldiers and political leadership.  While many equate times of armed conflict with the absence of law, this assumption is both misleading and dangerous. 

      International humanitarian law (“IHL”) is the body of law which applies during times of armed conflict, regulating the conduct of those in conflict by limiting the means and methods of warfare.  Also known as the “laws of war” or “laws of armed conflict”, international humanitarian law is codified primarily in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols.  With the objective of preserving human dignity even in turbulent times, the laws of war protect civilians, hors de combat (those removed from the conflict), and certain classes of military personnel, such as medics and military chaplains, from harm.  The laws, among other things, regulate the treatment of prisoners of war, prohibit the use of weapons which cause superfluous injury, and make possible the delivery of humanitarian aid.  These rules minimize human suffering and create the conditions for the protection of vulnerable populations.

       As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States has an obligation to teach its military and general public about international humanitarian law.   Article 47 of the First Geneva Convention mandates:         

 The High Contracting Parties undertake, in time of peace as in time of war, to disseminate the text of the [Geneva] Convention as widely as possible in their respective countries and in particular, to include the study thereof in their programmes of military and, if possible, civil instruction, so that the principles thereof may be known to the entire population, in particular to the armed fighting forces, the medical personnel and the chaplains.[1] 

Educating the public about lawful practices in times of conflict has significant ramifications at home and abroad.  Familiarity with the laws of armed conflict strengthens compliance with the rule of law. A recent study by the American Red Cross which surveyed 1019 American adults and 502 American youth between the ages of 12-17 years old,  shows that 55 percent of adults and only 20 percent of youth are “very familiar” or “somewhat familiar with” IHL.[2]   Increasing awareness of the laws of armed conflict is essential to promoting principles of global citizenship and protecting vulnerable groups from harm.  Armed with the knowledge of the law, the public can serve as a watchdog to ensure the proper use of military force abroad and create political momentum to hold accountable those who violate international laws.  Knowledge of IHL also raises awareness of human rights abuses in foreign countries, making it more politically palatable to intervene in humanitarian crises.

       But IHL does not only protect the unknown and unseen persons caught in conflict zones in far away lands.  It also protects the men and women of the United Statesarmed forces.  Military personnel in particular must be conscious of the laws of armed conflict for a variety of reasons, least of which is to avoid the legal and political repercussions which follow violations of the law.  One need not look further than the forthcoming prosecution of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghans on a lone wolf night raid into the Kandahar province of Afghanistan, to witness the seriousness with which the military approaches IHL violations.  Notwithstanding, the courts-martial and international condemnation that often results from abuses of the law, IHL violations may also endanger the armed forces by precipitating retaliatory attacks and human rights abuses.  In addition to documenting the inadequate level of understanding among the general public, the American Red Cross study further found that 59 percent of youth and 51 percent of adults believe that it is “always or sometimes acceptable” to torture enemy soldiers.[3]  Most surprisingly, the study found that 41 percent of youth and 30 percent of adults believe that it is “always acceptable or acceptable in some circumstances” to torture American soldiers.[4]   While the level of IHL knowledge is higher among those who serve in the armed forces, these statistics illustrate a great deficiency in civic education.  The early education of youth is especially important as many young men and women leave civilian life to join the military.  Failure to educate the public about the principles of IHL opens the door to future abuses and lawlessness.  

       This risk is not unsubstantial.  The American military and general public is faced with difficult decisions concerning laws of war issues on a daily basis.  The changing nature of warfare, led by international non-state actors, has brought conflict to the homeland for the first time since World War II.  Terrorists not only operate in Afghanistan,Yemen, and Somalia, but also in our own cities.  Understanding IHL is critical when formulating a national response to counter these threats in a manner consistent with our nation’s values.  As the global symbol of democracy, adherence to IHL is not only imperative to maintain international prestige but also necessary to allow the United Statesto better pursue democracy promotion efforts around the globe. 

       Despite presenting some startling data, the American Red Cross survey does provide some hope for the future.  Nearly 8 of every 10 children between the ages of 12-17 surveyed believed that the United States should educate children about the laws of armed conflict before they become of age to serve or vote.[5]  Reflected in these figures is the absence of a standardized civic education program in IHL able to meet the high levels of interest and demand among citizens.  This blog provides a forum to help fill this gap by providing a non-partisan, legally focused analysis of international humanitarian law and its applicability to conflicts throughout the world.  A resource for citizens of all ages, whether they are practitioners, scholars, policy makers, or lay persons, Humanity in the Midst of War is an avenue to understanding more about this complex body of law and conflict analysis.


[1] First Geneva Convention of 1949, Art. 47 available at http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/FULL/365?OpenDocument.

[2] American Red Cross, Survey on International Humanitarian Law, March 2011 available at http://www.redcross.org/www-files/Documents/pdf/international/IHL/IHLSurvey.pdf.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

One response to “The Need to Educate Citizens about International Humanitarian Law and Why It Matters

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