Book Review – Humanizing the Laws of War: The Red Cross and the Development of International Humanitarian Law

By Jessica Pierucci

Robin Geiß, Andreas Zimmermann, & Stefanie Haumer (eds.), Humanizing the Laws of War: The Red Cross and the Development of International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge University Press, 2017). 278 p. Hardcover $110.00.

9781316622186Humanizing the Laws of War is an edited book born from a 150-year celebration of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2013. “The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement at 150: Developing and Clarifying International Humanitarian Law,” honored the movement by pulling together international humanitarian law (IHL) scholars and practitioners for a meeting in Berlin. The meeting led to this work memorializing the achievements of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its undeniable impact on IHL during the past 150 years, while also addressing the organization’s shortcomings and outside criticism.

The editors open the book with an introduction focusing on the interaction between the ICRC and the National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society within countries. They note the cognizable advantage to this structure with locals who know and understand the country being able to most effectively implement broader initiatives on the local level. However, the authors note the need for increased cooperation between the organizations to further the worldwide influence of IHL.

Part I discusses the ICRC’s influence on treaty making. In Chapter 1, Robert Heinsch gives an historical account of the development of the Geneva Conventions showing the ICRC’s intimate involvement in drafting the conventions, and thus framing the conversation, noting “[i]t is probably not exaggerated to say that there is no other field of international law in which a non-State entity has had such an impact on the norm-development process as well as on the dynamic interpretation of the respective rules.” (p. 27). Heinsch notes the ICRC has also authored commentaries on the Geneva Conventions and is currently updating those commentaries, further demonstrating the ICRC’s influence as a central authority on interpretation of the conventions. The second chapter furthers the discussion with Michael Bothe detailing the ICRC’s influence on the subsequent protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 while acknowledging the protocols’ shortcomings, notably in nuclear and environmental fields.

Part II looks beyond treaties at the ICRC’s influence on IHL norm development. In Chapter 3, one of the editors of the 2005 Customary International Humanitarian Law study, Jean-Marie Henckaerts, describes the origin and addresses criticism of the study that laid out 161 rules of customary IHL, and is continually updated through additions of relevant state practice in the ICRC’s Customary IHL database. The origin story provides valuable context for understanding this expansive study and I appreciated the author’s direct discussion of criticism since the study’s publication. Chapter 4 similarly provides background and addresses critiques of the ICRC’s Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law. Robert Cryer discusses the criticisms, but pushes back noting if the critical governments “wish to reject the ICRC’s view, the impetus is now for them to show that they can create (and get broad agreement thereupon) something better.” (p. 138).

Part III turns to the ICRC’s influence on weapons laws and international criminal law (ICL). Chapter 5 discusses the ICRC’s efforts in developing IHL norms and treaties on weapons that are by their nature indiscriminate or cause superfluous injury, such as chemical weapons and cluster munitions. Kathleen Lawand and Isabel Robinson share examples of the ICRC successfully serving as a catalyst for creating weapon-specific laws, but admits the ICRC has not been successful in all circumstances, particularly in the case of nuclear weapons. In Chapter 6, Carsten Stahn discusses the intersections of IHL and ICL, focusing in particular on interaction between the ICRC and international criminal courts and tribunals. Stahn shares how IHL and ICL are not mutually exclusive and further understanding of and development of their relationship could improve both fields.

Part IV, the conclusion, is authored by two of the editors, Robin Geiß and Andreas Zimmermann. They highlight the ICRC’s successes and prominence within IHL while also grappling with its failures. In particular, the authors note the need for a compliance mechanism or other means to increase IHL compliance and discuss barriers impeding compliance initiatives.

This review provides just a glimpse at the fascinating history of the ICRC discussed in the work. The book’s critical lens makes for an enlightening read allowing the reader to gain a broad understanding of the ICRC’s contributions to IHL laws and resources, and the current limitations of IHL and the ICRC. The heavily footnoted chapters allow readers interested in any of the topics covered to look deeper into history or criticism of the ICRC’s influence and IHL. This book would fit well in any library with an IHL collection.

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