21 Apr

Humanitarian law helps us to react on crimes against humanity

Is it legally allowed to bomb enemy headquarters, if innocent civilians are known to move in the area? Can the opponent use methods of torture to acquire potentially life-saving information from enemies in captivity? In order to determine answers to questions like these, commanders of military operations often rely on the support of legal advisors, who help interpreting the rules of war. At the Finnish Red Cross’ humanitarian law competition, university students got a touch of real life decision-making, as their knowledge was put to the test.

With the international humanitarian law conventions in one hand and law books in the other, 14 students from all over Finland gathered in Helsinki for the Gunnar Rosén International Humanitarian Law Competition. This meant four intensive days of role-plays, workshops and lectures that culminated in a moot court, a simulated war trial session where the most successful participants took the roles of prosecutor and defence.

The session was judged by a panel of renowned international experts, Christie Edwards-Orkin, Director for International Humanitarian Law at the American Red Cross, Julie Tenenbaum, Regional Legal Adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Erkki Kourula, judge of the International Criminal Court and Kari Takamaa, legal advisor of the Finnish National Defence University.

In real life, court representatives investigate their case and build arguments for months, but other than that, the experience was as close to an actual session as it comes. In preparation for the moot court, the participants trained by implementing their theoretical knowledge on several practical cases. Like legal advisors in the field, they had to take in a lot of background information and closely study conventions in order to give grounds for practical decisions to military commanders, media representatives and government leaders.

Daniela Karlsson, Christian Saja and Emil Vartiainen, students of Law and International Law at Åbo Akademi, had traveled from Turku to take part in the competition and felt that they had learned a lot already during the first days.

– As someone who has mostly studied Finnish law, this has been a great way of gaining an international perspective and in-depth understanding of a new field. I also like the fact that this is a totally new way of learning, compared to writing essays at the university library, Daniela Karlsson says.

A long tradition around the world

The legal rules of war protect those who do not participate in armed conflicts. It emphasizes the protection of uninvolved civilians, but also wounded and imprisoned soldiers as well as those who have dropped their guns. International humanitarian law also defines permissible methods of warfare in order to advance peace building and limit the usage of techniques that cause unnecessary suffering.

– Advancing and informing about international humanitarian law is one of the core missions of the Red Cross and one of the reasons behind the creation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. That is why it is our responsibility to spread knowledge. Knowing about the rules of conflict also improves people’s media literacy and helps making sense of conflicts, says competition coordinator Elina Almila.

“Competitions are a fun way of bringing the law out of text books and into real life.”

The Gunnar Rosén International Humanitarian Law Competition was the first of its kind in Finland, but the Red Cross has a long tradition of arranging similar competitions in other countries, as evaluations show that this is a good way of activating a younger crowd.

– Competitions are a fun way of bringing the law out of text books and into real life. When preparing for cases by doing research, forming their own arguments and receiving direct feedback, participants are likely to learn effectively, Almila says.

A need to discuss about international conflicts

The smallest team of the competition was made up of law students Jasmiina Jokinen and Terhi Raikas from University of Helsinki. Raikas tells that she originally became interested in international humanitarian law due to long drawn out conflict in Syria.

– I have Syrian relatives, so the crisis has touched me on a very personal level. The massive migration that the conflict has led to proves that we need to discuss these issues, not only where the war happens, but here, since it also concerns us, Raikas says.

Despite the fact that headlines about the terrible things people subject each other to in wars sometimes makes one wonder if any rules are being followed at all. Jasmiina Jokinen points out that international humanitarian law gives an important framework for judging what is acceptable.

– It is true that war crimes happen and war is pursued in ways totally behind reason, despite humanitarian law. However, without any rules, things could be far worse and we wouldn’t have any tools to react on crimes against humanity, Jokinen says.

The Finnish Red Cross arranges introductory courses in international humanitarian law several times a year. Click here to view dates and to read more about the work with international humanitarian law (in Finnish).

Text and photo: Mikaela Remes