05 April 2023

Humanizing Warfare as a Project of Power Politics and Colonial Exclusion

A Review Essay


Boyd van Dijk, Preparing for War. The Making of the Geneva Conventions, OUP 2022

Hugo Slim, Solferino 21. Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century, Hurst 2022

The great battle of Solferino in northern Italy in 1859, resulting in the victory of the Franco-Sardinian Alliance over the Austrian Empire, was a traditional, old school 19th century military confrontation with heavy losses on both sides. When Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, visited the battlefield in the aftermath of the cruel fighting he was so shocked that he wrote his famous book A Memory of Solferino (1861) which, in turn, prompted the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In Solferino 21, Hugo Slim, himself an experienced humanitarian practitioner and academic, takes Dunant’s book – “an almost sacred text” (Slim, xxiv) in the humanitarian community – as starting point and inspiration to critically assess the humanitarian development and landscape in the 21st century. He divides his analysis in three parts: the development of warfare from Solferino until today (pp. 3-96), suffering and protection of civilians (97-156) and the humanitarian system as such (157-246).1)

Boyd van Dijk, a history and political science scholar who recently moved to Nuffield College at Oxford University, also refers to Dunant’s work but only en passant and as a sort of starting point2) of his critical analysis and profound deconstruction of the foundational myth of the 1949 (Four) Geneva Conventions (GC I-IV) as a liberal humanitarian project and an answer to “war’s appalling brutality” at Solferino and beyond (pp. 2, 29). This mythic narrative, which has its origins essentially in the writings of the Geneva drafters themselves (for example ICRC legal expert Jean Pictet, editor of the highly influential ‘official’ ICRC Commentary published between 1952 and 1959) and has been largely adopted by current scholarship (summarizing pp. 14-19), constitutes a highly subjective and self-referential account with several shortcomings and blind spots (pp. 3-4). Against this background van Dijk tells not just a different but, in a way, a completely opposite story, turning the official and mainstream narrative upside down. In a nutshell, van Dijk convincingly shows that the final text of the GC was the product of a complex blend of different, but partially overlapping interests of the major powers (United States of America [US], United Kingdom [UK], France and Soviet Union [SU]), with the ICRC as an important actor in between them, and with the US and UK generally taking a more restrictive position than France, the SU and the ICRC in terms of the protective (prohibitive) scope of the future International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Many of the interests at stake were neither liberal nor humanitarian but a product of mere Realpolitik and political struggles influenced by the personal (WW II) experiences of the negotiators, the geopolitical context, the emerging cold war and the ongoing colonial conflicts (pp. 4 ff., 309 ff., 321). In fact, as to the latter, one needs to recall that large parts of the world were still under western and Soviet rule with China in a full-fledged civil war.3) Van Dijk pretends to be “sensitive to the law’s imperial origin” and “resonates with a broader trend within postcolonial legal studies, which is concerned to analyse international law’s imbrication with European imperial expansion.” (p. 17). The full argument is laid out in great detail in six chapters which deserve to be looked at more closely if only for a summary and systematisation of the many details and differences, even within the same negotiating delegations, of which the reader easily loses track.

In methodological terms, van Dijk focuses, besides the ICRC, on the four major powers already mentioned (“to a lesser extent” on the SU, p. 19), more specifically, on the perspective of the concrete negotiators (“from below”) and reconstructs their positions, interests, dilemmas etc. on the basis of an unprecedent analysis of ICRC files and State archives (pp. 19 ff). As van Dijk is fully aware of the limits of these sources in terms of their accuracy and completeness4) he contrasts the official records with hitherto unknown sources, including internal reports of ICRC delegates and recently declassified documents, in sum “multilingual archival materials” of predominantly Western but also Soviet origin and from both State and private archives and collections (p. 24). This use of (new sources) makes the study “the most authoritative” so far.5)


In Slim’s analysis, warfare “stood at a pivotal moment of technological change” at the time of the battle of Solferino as it does today (p. xxviii). While back then a new era of industrial warfare and a new arms race was beginning to start, today we are facing a move from industrial to computerized, high tech war with an increasingly important role for so-called artificial intelligence. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, given the recent wars in Afghanistan, Syria and still ongoing in Yemen, Tigray (Ethiopia) and Ukraine,6) Slim argues that “war in the twenty-first century has not yet been as horrendous in scale and intensity as war in the twentieth century …” (p. 6). Clearly, as shown in van Dijk’s Chapter 5 (pp. 197 ff.), indiscriminate warfare in full disregard of the principle of distinction, only subsequently codified7) and recognized as part of custom,8) has been the rule right up to the 1949 GC and well beyond, with the Civilian Convention (GC IV) remaining largely ineffective. We will return to that below.

At any rate, war today is a reality and often also part of policy as it was in the past with political descriptions capturing much better the motivations and incentives of the warring parties than the applicable legal concepts. Slim lists a series of kinds of war (pp. 12 ff.) – absolute, instrumental, agonistic wars, wars of choice and survival, asymmetric and peer-to-peer wars, supremacist identity, ideological revolutionary, self-determination and liberation, hegemonic contest wars, UN wars of protection and state-building – which reflect the history of warfare in the last two centuries and help us to better understand the military and operational forms of warfare we witness today. In this regard, Slim identifies “ten characteristics of war today” (pp. 17 ff.) – militarily small wars, religious wars with a Muslim geography, internationalized civil wars of armed groups and coalitions, urban warfare, long war, chronic political violence, computerized warfare, sub-threshold and hybrid war, hyperlegal warfare as well as public participation in war –, arguing that these characteristics “have made up the normal operation setting of war, civilian survival and humanitarian response” up to now (p. 57). Of course, these characteristics cannot always be precisely distinguished and they may co-exist in one war at the same time. Surely, both in militarily small (counterinsurgency) wars (Vietnam, Colombia, Syria, Mali) and bigger/longer wars (Yemen, Ukraine) computerized and hyperlegal warfare, hybridity and public participation (especially via social networks) play an important role.

More importantly, however, some of these characteristics – the more modern ones – already bear the fruit of the “next-generation warfare” (pp. 59 ff.) which seems to be Slim’s main concern. Here he sees three major trends: the possibility of big war spread across new domains; intensified computerized warfare with the ensuing ethical challenges around the use of artificial intelligence; and warfare fought out in the context of interrelated megatrends like climate change, urbanization and infectious disease (p. 59). As to the role of artificial intelligence in computerized warfare (pp. 67 ff.) he identifies three main issues (pp. 78 ff.): judgment (e.g. applying the principles of distinction and proportionality), responsibility (humane versus machine agency) and a loss of human authenticity in war. As to the megatrends mentioned, especially the climate crisis and global diseases, these may turn from conditions into causes of warfare (pp. 85 ff.), assigning to these non-traditional security risks a “survivalist dimension” (p. 95).


While civilians and their suffering were absent in Dunant’s account, the humanitarian attention turned to them for the first time about 100 years ago with the enormous “non-combatant suffering” during the First World War (Slim, p. xxxii). The need for the protection of civilians caught in the midst of battle, while recognized during the negotiations of GC I-IV, did not lead to anything close to a comprehensive protection with only one convention (GC IV) dedicated to the protection of civilians which, in addition, suffers from a series of shortcomings. This is understated by Slim while van Dijk deals extensively with this lack of protection especially in Chapters 2 and 5 (to which we will turn in a moment). In his Chapter 1 on the “twisted road to Geneva” (pp. 29 ff., 53 ff.) van Dijk shows that the negotiations leading to the 1949 Diplomatic Conference were heavily influenced by the post WW II cold war and colonial context (e.g. pp. 7, 8). Five aspects stand out. First of all, the process was a wholly Eurocentric enterprise, dominated by the victorious allies with only a few delegations from the Global South (e.g. nationalist China). Just compare the only 64 nations represented at the Diplomatic conference (p. 45) and the 38 State representatives signing the GC on 8 December 1949 (p. 303) with the current number of States parties amounting to 196 (see here). Second, there was a divide between the US/UK and the continental victims of Nazi aggression (especially France) given their different wartime experiences and colonial interests (p. 38). Third, getting the SU fully on board was highly uncertain (pp. 41 ff.) given, inter alia, its critical stance towards the participation of fascist States (e.g. Franco’s Spain) and towards the ICRC as a bourgeois and Western dominated organisation which, in the Soviet view and that of other (Jewish) organisations, did not speak up to the Nazi Holocaust and other atrocities (see also p. 263). Fourth, despite the just mentioned criticism, the ICRC’s role, supported by the Swiss government, was key in promoting a broader scope of the GC and mediating between the major powers, especially the US and SU increasingly stuck in the cold war. Fifth, the protection of civilians in a separate Convention was always controversial and only possible due to the personal background of many negotiators being victims of Nazi atrocities (pp. 50-1).

In fact, as explained by van Dijk in greater detail in Chapter 2 on the “making of” GC IV (pp. 53 ff.), this Convention was ultimately adopted thanks to ever-growing human rights thinking (pp. 67 ff.), promoted by France, the ICRC and even supported by the SU, albeit arguably not so much out of true humanist concerns but rather with the hidden agenda to embarrass the “West”, especially the UK/US, for their very restrictive views as to the possible scope of protection of the Geneva law. In fact, the latter rejected any rule limiting their military room for manoeuvre and preferred to have a militarily free hand as occupiers of Germany and in the colonies as well as with a view to the future (cold) war with the SU (pp. 87 ff.). Interestingly, France changed its restrictive pre-WW II position (regarding the first Civilian Conventions leading up to the 1929 Geneva Prisoners of War [POW] Convention, pp. 57 ff.) to now – post WW II – fiercely supporting the human rights discourse. Still, the Anglo-American resistance against a more comprehensive protection (covering own nationals, political prisoners, stateless persons, ensuring the rights of persons under occupation and banning the death penalty) led to a more restrictive text, limited to enemy civilians, excluding certain rights-violating measures (reprisals, inhuman treatment during interrogation) and fully ignoring the large scale repression in the colonies thus displaying a blind spot as to colonial discrimination and racist oppression (pp. 67 ff.). While there was no agreement on a preambular text which could have clarified the importance of human rights, human rights principles have been inserted in Common Article (CA) 3 though (p. 93).

At any rate, the insufficient protection of civilians by GC IV is also shown by the law and practice of indiscriminate warfare through aerial bombing, the use of nuclear weapons and starvation as a weapon of war (van Dijk, Chapter 5, pp. 197 ff.). While efforts to ban indiscriminate warfare go back to the 19th century (pp. 201 ff.), the major military powers of the time (UK, US and even Canada) always had an interest to have a militarily free hand to defeat the enemy, including by weakening the morale of its civilian population, i.e., by employing the same “morale” bombing tactics used nowadays by Russia against Ukraine. That position did not change during WW II nor during the post WW II GC negotiations. In fact, the ICRC team led by Jean Pictet started drafting the GC in the midst of indiscriminate allied bombing of German cities and the US’ use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Perhaps for this reason the ICRC’s initial reluctance to a broader prohibitive regime then changed and a ban on nuclear weapons and starvation as a weapon of war was promoted (pp. 220 ff.). However, this move was only supported by the SU and its allies (p. 223) with the Anglo-American group, including France and other NATO allies, doing everything possible to exclude indiscriminate warfare from GC IV (pp. 222, 226 ff.) and only allowing for limited prohibitions modelled after Nazi practices during WW II (use of human shields and mass starvation of civilian populations, p. 249). The ultimate confrontation between the restrictive US/UK position and the more prohibitive Soviet position took place at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference (pp. 235 ff.) where infuriated Eastern European delegates accused the US of preparing a “new Auschwitz” by impeding a ban on “blind” (indiscriminate) weapons (especially nuclear ones) and indiscriminate warfare generally (p. 247).9) At any rate, the more prohibitive SU proposal was rejected on procedural grounds and anything coming close to what we today know as the principle of distinction with the ensuing prohibition of indiscriminate warfare was dismissed (pp. 249-50). With this, in fact, another myth was created, namely that the Hague Law deals with weapons while the Geneva law with victims of armed conflict.10)

Thus, while GC I-III maintained the traditional humanitarian focus on and preference for military combatants, GC IV offered only a limited protection of civilians with the ICRC subsequently trying to improve the system of protection with a view to the principle of distinction (van Dijk, p. 251 and passim). Yet, it lasted until 1977 when the protection of (civilian) victims of (both international and non-international) armed conflict took centre stage with the adoption of the First and Second Additional Protocols (AP I and AP II). Only with this and more recent improvements, advocated by the ICRC and other (academic) humanitarian actors and facilitated by the ever increasing human rights discourse, the “huge omissions” of the Geneva negotiations have been “put right”.11) Only with this development it may fairly be said that Dunant’s heirs now “look at war primarily through civilian eyes” (Slim, p. xxxiii) although events like the surrender of whole army battalions, as recently at Ukraine’s Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol with the ensuing negotiations of POW swaps, turn our attention, if only temporarily, again to military combatants.

At any rate, the shift of attention from combatants to civilians is in tension with the fact that there is mostly no reliable data on civilian victims, including killings, and the numbers are sometimes exaggerated by interested parties, including and especially the humanitarian actors (Slim, pp. 100 ff.), with the number of civilian battle deaths being “strikingly low” as compared to the last century (pp. 107-8). There is clearly a need to distinguish between “direct” battle deaths, as a result of fighting and direct targeting, and “indirect” ones, as a result of secondary effects like hunger, disease, displacement (p. 108). Slim convincingly demonstrates with reference to academic studies and concrete examples of armed conflict scenarios that the indirect causes are much more relevant (108 ff.).

Another feature which has long been underestimated and neglected is the civilian agency in armed conflicts (Slim, pp. 137 ff.). Civilians are not just victims but also important actors in armed conflicts – as parents, children, social workers, medics, teachers etc. –, often more important than the humanitarian agencies which tend to get more attention although they could not do with the many civilians working directly for them or assisting them indirectly. Slim criticizes humanitarian actors and politicians for “hav[ing] been slow to formally recognize civilian agency” (p. 140). He calls for more support for civilians acting as humanitarian agents during armed conflict as well as the more explicit recognition and consideration of civilian activities and attitudes in armed conflict, including and especially with a view to the digital (virtual) role of  these civilian agents (pp. 142 ff.)

Irregular Fighters

Irregular fighters are normally understood as those not linked to any official (State) party, concretely to its official armed forces, either formally being members of them or otherwise incorporated into them. During WW II such irregular fighters were usually “partisans” fighting against the Nazi occupiers, i.e., “disconnected from the armed forces while targeting an enemy occupier”, including guerrillas, spies and enemy agents (van Dijk, p. 148 with fn. 5). Thus, the question how to treat these fighters in the Geneva law, dealt with by can Dijk in Chapter 4 (pp. 147 ff.), was by no means a purely academic one given that many negotiators from continental European States, especially France, had in one way or another a partisan past. The question is also linked to the civilian population’s collective right to resistance during occupation, concretely against Nazi occupation during WW II, and thus concerned, at least indirectly, practically all European nations negotiating the GC. While the more directly affected delegations, especially France, supported by the ICRC and the SU, wanted to extend the humanitarian protection to partisans recalling their fight against the Nazi occupation and repressive policies (pp. 148, 180), the Anglo-American position was strictly opposed trying to exclude irregulars from any protection, be it as POWs (under GC III) or as civilians (under GC IV by introducing a security clause). While the latter group of States was well aware of the issue of resistance against occupation, it saw itself rather in the position of future or even present (colonial) occupiers or parties to a conflict with the SU (and its communist allies around the globe) where it would not be in their interest to be bound to overly strict rules protecting this kind of fighters. Ultimately, this more restrictive position won the day, essentially limiting the protection of irregular fighters to organised resistance movements, connected to a State army (e.g. the official French resistance as opposed to anti-colonial guerrillas), and the levée en masse (pp. 149-50, 186-7, 192 ff.).

As a result, on the one hand, Art. 4A (2) GC III extends the POW concept beyond the official armed forces only to militias and volunteer groups, including “organized resistance movements”, if they belong to a Party to the conflict and fulfil, cumulatively, four conditions; the levée en masse is covered by Art. 4A(6) GC III. On the other hand, the door to GC IV is closed for these irregulars since, for one, all persons protected by GC I-III “shall not be considered as protected persons within the meaning of” GC IV (Art. 4(4) GC IV) and, for another, an “individual protected person” engaged “in activities hostile to the security of the State” cannot invoke the rights under GC IV given the pre-eminence of the respective State’s security interest (Art. 5(1) GC IV).12)

The Colonial Blind Spot

As already mentioned above, the whole process of the GC negotiations was essentially a Eurocentric and imperial enterprise with the US as the new hegemon often joining forces with the (former) colonial powers as far as the indiscriminate repression of anti-colonial, (communist) insurgent movements was concerned. While the negotiators’ position (especially the ones from the US) may also have been informed by some more idealistic views on humanity and justice (“Nuremberg moment”) so grossly despised especially by the Nazis, the debate on GC IV left colonial and racial injustice in both the colonies and the US (Jim Crow laws) unaddressed (van Dijk, p. 96) and, similarly, the discussion of the IHL enforcement regime, to be looked at more closely below, excluded the realities of the colonial struggle (p. 296). Thus, the whole story of the negotiations can be read as one of hierarchy and exclusion of the Global South (pp. 17, 309, 312) (just recall the number of States participating in the negotiations and signing the GC as compared with the current number of States parties).

This narrative is also true for the only provision dedicated to non-international armed conflicts, i.e. the already mentioned CA 3, analysed in detail by van Dijk in Chapter 3 on “Internationalizing Civil and Colonial Wars” (pp. 99 ff.). Here, too, the imperial/colonial powers (UK, France, partly US) clearly wanted to avoid any interference with their colonial (e.g. Indochina) or imperial (Latin America, Korea) policies and interests. Apparently, they were not even aware of their double standards: How can you allow resistance against Nazi occupation by taking recourse to and condoning irregular (partisan) warfare but not concede the same right to the anti-colonial movements making use of guerrilla tactics?13) While the SU pursued an anticolonial discourse and this was crucial in saving CA 3 (pp. 127-8, 137-8), one must not overlook the fact that the SU itself was an imperial power with the respective interests in their immediate (Eastern European) sphere of influence (p. 143). At any rate, the final compromise leading to CA 3 was an intentionally watered-down provision (“studied vagueness” giving governments “some discretion”, in the words of UK delegate Gardner, p. 116) with a high threshold (“armed conflict”). Thus, fuller protection was only achieved, as already said above, with AP II (p. 143). Still, CA 3 had, given its interpretative potential, an “imperial career” (p. 144) and could thus be invoked by insurgent movements (e.g. FLN in Algeria, p. 144), certainly against the original will of the drafters, and further developed by international and national case law (the 2006 Hamdan v Rumsfeld case of the US Supreme Court being perhaps the most prominent example of an expansive, human rights based interpretation applying CA 3 as minimum guarantees in the “war on terror”). Thus, ultimately, the colonial/imperial powers were less successful in the long run; at any rate, they most probably did not anticipate the unexpected career of CA 3.

Humanitarianism and its Actors: Another Neo-Colonial Enterprise?

Humanitarianism, here understood with Slim as the organisations and persons (the “humanitarians”) working hard to humanize armed conflict (in contrast to van Dijk’s understanding of the major drafting parties of the GC as the “Great Humanitarians”, p. 311), has become a large, mainly Western enterprise, indeed, “a largely elite Western international system and not a broad-based global one” (Slim, p. 157). Transnational superagencies with ever increasing and cost intensive bureaucracies – “large transnational bureaucracies with many thousands of employees and multi-billion dollar annual budgets” (pp. 206-7, 223) – tend to marginalise local actors. While this goes against Dunant’s local, decentralised impulse, the “humanitarian superiority complex … still evident today” (p. xxxvii) can largely be seen, so Slim argues explicitly and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, as a continuation of “Dunant’s cultural and sexist bias” (ibid.). The current “empire of humanity” (Barnett, 2013) is based on a “sense of superiority” that has created an “imperial form of humanitarian aid”, “marked by strong elements of Western paternalism and maternalism” (Slim, p. xxxvii), dominated by paternalistic, male whiteness throughout its 160-year entangled history (pp. 161 ff.). Thus, Western humanitarian aid is often seen as “imperial in style, colonial in its practices and racist in assumptions of its operational superiority” (p. 223) by the target communities in the Global South. Unsurprisingly, it is treated “with suspicion” (p. 215) by these communities which strive to create their own systems of humanitarian aid under the direction of emerging global powers like China, India, South Africa and Brazil (Slim, pp. 215 ff.), i.e., the same States which are – together with Russia – part of the BRICS group and take a rather distant position towards the West’s pro Ukraine policy (on that see my views here and here).

Against this background, Slim basically calls for decolonization, decentralisation (strengthening of local actors and agencies), debureaucratisation as well as for more multilateralism and cooperation of and within the existing system (pp. xxxviii ff., 213 ff.). Local actors have to be strengthened since “[H]umanitarian self-determination is” not only “a fundamental right” but also the prerequisite “for effective aid in the huge challenges” facing humanity (p. 234). The Western led system needs to shift “from humanitarian action to humanitarian cooperation” (p. 235), humanitarians should – in line with “a simple localization rule” – be “enablers, not competitors, in the humanitarian sector of a crisis country” (p. 236). From a geopolitical perspective, the new multipolar world order also requires “a more realistic humanitarian multilateralism”, recognizing “different humanitarian spheres of influence and different humanitarian systems around the world” (p. 238). Indeed, the main task of the new humanitarianism will be to clarify how humanitarian aid and operations are to be organised along the mentioned political spheres of influence and how different transnational, national and local actors are to coexist and cooperate. However, a word of caution is at place here: while ownership of the affected communities is surely necessary and increases the legitimacy of humanitarian aid, local actors may also be manipulated or remotely controlled by emerging international powers like especially China, but also Russia, India or Saudi Arabia. The old Western system of control would then be replaced by a new system of external control in line with the new multilateral world order, but wouldn’t it be naïve to think that the affected communities would be better off under Chinese, Russian or any other control of an authoritarian regime?

This new system will also challenge one of the most important legacies of Dunant, the principle of humanitarian neutrality, as one of the four principles (the other three being humanity, impartiality and independence) of the traditional “Swiss” model of Red Cross/Red Crescent humanitarianism (pp. 168, 239 ff.). Indeed, neutrality has always been a guiding principle of the ICRC, especially in the negotiations leading up to the GC. As shown by van Dijk at various places in this study, it can also break the neck of such an organisation if neutrality, and not just in the eyes of victims, is no longer an option given the atrocities of one of the warring parties (see on the ICRC’s silence regarding the Nazi holocaust and other atrocities already above and briefly discussed again below).14)

Enforcement (or lack thereof)

“Preparing for the Worst” (van Dijk, Ch. 6, pp. 253 ff.) means dealing with a situation where IHL violations call for countermeasures. Modern IHL would want to go beyond the classical collective State countermeasures, especially reprisals, not least because they entail an often endless escalation of violation; yet these countermeasures have been common until the mid-twenty century (p. 253), i.e., right before the GC negotiations. At any rate, enforcement is to be understood broadly referring to the various ways and mechanisms by which compliance with the GC / IHL shall be ensured. These measures range from dissemination of the rules and domestic (normative) implementation to enforcement stricto sensu as a reaction to non-compliance (with different forms of sanctions). Van Dijk lays the emphasis on this latter understanding (p. 254).

In historical terms, the Franco-Prussian War (1870/71) brought about a change from the just mentioned exclusive State enforcement (especially reprisals) to the emerging role of the ICRC and Protecting Powers (i.e. neutral States accepted as intermediators/supervisors by the parties of a conflict), in particular by visiting POWs (pp. 255 ff.). WW I produced important improvements in that regard, including Commissions of Inquiry (1919 Paris Conference) and the emergence of international criminal law (ICL, pp. 258 ff.). Yet, the control mechanisms were clearly limited given prevailing State sovereignty interests, with more than 70% of the WW II POWs without supervision (pp. 262-3), the ICRC’s silence in the face of Nazi atrocities (p. 263) and highly selective post WW II prosecutions (pp. 263 ff.). At any rate, the “Nuremberg moment” brought a move towards the idea of criminal prosecution (in a decentralised way on the basis of universal jurisdiction or by an international court) and penal sanctions for “war crimes” with the US initially supporting this approach (pp. 265 ff., 273). Yet, at the 1948 Stockholm conference, the US position, reflecting the new cold war winds coming from Washington with a clear priority to fight the communist threat in a cold and hot (Korea) form, had changed, rejecting any form of (penal) accountability. Thus, the focus was again on POW protection (pp. 273 ff., 277) and softer enforcement mechanisms, i.e., dissemination, inquiry, supervision and conciliation (p. 278).

Notwithstanding, the ICRC, fighting for its survival as the main and perhaps only IHL enforcer (pp. 273-4), continued to pursue the criminal repression approach organising a high-level expert consultation process leading up to the Diplomatic Conference (pp. 279 ff.). The expert group, composed of the renowned scholars and/or practitioners Graven, Lauterpacht, Mouton and Phillimore (plus the ICRC team headed by Pictet), discussed five key issues (defining violations, grave breaches, universal jurisdiction, superior orders, and an international criminal court, p. 281) and proposed a broad grave breaches regime (pp. 283-4). Clearly, one could not expect this proposal to survive the Diplomatic Conference with the fierce US/UK opposition to any form of criminalisation (pp. 284 ff.) and the strong SU opposition to any form of (external) supervision, independent inquiry and ICJ involvement as undue interferences with its sovereignty (pp. 290 ff.). The final outcome was a weak system of enforcement with a severely curtailed grave breaches regime (pp. 289-90) and concessions only in areas where the more important States did not see their sovereignty interests affected or rather pursued their own specific interests based on reciprocity, i.e., better POW protection, dissemination, domestic prosecutions and the strengthening of the ICRC (pp. 298 ff.). Thus, at the end of the day, a rare alliance of the superpowers and cold war enemies (US/SU) succeeded in giving priority to sovereignty over effective enforcement by independent supervision and inquiry accompanied by meaningful sanctions (p. 297).

Concluding Remarks

The conclusions reconnect with the preliminary remarks and largely share van Dijk’s considerations (pp. 303 ff.).

The myth of the GC as a liberal, inclusive project has been thoroughly deconstructed. Instead, after having read van Dijk’s study, it is clear that the GC are a product of (post) WW II imperial and (post)colonial Realpolitik, that is, of the struggle of the major powers (especially US / SU) guided by different, but partly overlapping interests (pp. 309-10, 311 ff., 321). The US/UK played a rather obstructive role (with the UK even more unyielding) trying to maintain the most freedom possible to use their military superiority (in the air, at sea and by way of nuclear weapons) and/or to oppress colonial/anti-imperial unrest (especially the UK with France coinciding in this respect), thus taking the perspective of the imperial occupier (p. 315). In contrast, France mostly acted as a mediator, albeit not fully consistent (on the one hand pursuing a human rights discourse, advocating strong protection of civilians, on the other hand excluding colonial wars, e.g. Indochina) and the SU often supported strict prohibitionist regimes (e.g. ban on nuclear weapons and indiscriminate warfare), thereby making “a major contribution” to the development of IHL (p. 318)15) and often assisting the ICRC / the Swiss despite open ideological antagonism (p. 318); yet, at the same time it fiercely defended its sovereignty with regard to supervision and other control mechanisms (p. 319). The ICRC, in turn, always taking into account the major powers’ interests, often tried to strike a delicate balance between humanity/justice and military necessity (pp. 316-7).

The systematic exclusion and marginalization of the realities of colonial (or other) societies dominated by the major powers is another factor where their interests coincided (including with the SU as to their spheres of interest). More importantly, this approach to the colonial realities flies in the face of the myth of the GC as an inclusive project. The hegemonic interests especially of the US – as the new and for a long-time only hegemon – also contradicts another myth, especially cultivated in that country, namely that of the US as a gentle civilizer of war. This lacks not only a basis in the drafting history of the GC (p. 308) but also conflicts with the realities in the early post WW II conflicts, especially the Korean war where the US, despite initially publicly rejecting the targeting of civilians, in the course of the escalating war targeted Korean civilians indiscriminately and rejected ICRC proposals to create safety zones (p. 324).

If one thinks about the development of IHL after the GC both the expansive interpretation of CA 3 and further normative developments (e.g. 1977 AP I and II, 2005 ICRC Customary IHL study and the 2013 Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare) come to mind, with new post-colonial actors having increasing influence on the normative development of the law (as an early development recall the recognition of anti-colonial and other struggles “in the exercise” of the “right to self-determination” in Art. 1(4) AP I). Yet, in practical terms, humanitarianism, as shown by Slim, has increasingly become a “Western” post-or neo-colonial project with large organisations dominating the scene to the detriment of local actors (which of course leaves the question open of whether local actors, perhaps controlled by emerging international powers as mentioned above, are always the better option). In normative terms, the limits of IHL are obvious, especially as regards the protection of the civilian population, where GC IV proved largely ineffective in the face of indiscriminate warfare, the limited protection of irregular fighters (the security clause of Art. 5 GC IV often enough invoked by occupying nations), the use of certain (including nuclear) weapons and starvation as a weapon of war (van Dijk, pp. 325 ff.). This ineffectiveness has, of course, to do with the lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms, remaining the “eternal headache” of IHL (p. 328), despite certain improvements, e.g. the expansion of supervision (especially regarding the POW treatment) since the 1980s and the emergence of an ICL system which offers an, albeit limited, penal back up in case of grave breaches / war crimes.

I am grateful to Alec Walen (Rutgers, USA) for very helpful observations and to Maxim Bönnemann for editing.


1 I note in passing that the initial pages of part two and three are wrongly indicated in the Table of Contents (p. ix).
2 In fact, in his (otherwise positive) review of Slim’s book (Just Security, 26 May 2022) van Dijk criticizes the former’s “tendency to overemphasize the historical significance of his actors, from the Battle of Solferino to Dunant…” and finds it “difficult to see Dunant as the founder of modern humanitarianism…”
3 See also H. Slim’s review on Just Security, 16 May 2022
4 Sometimes „state drafters sought to avoid leaving a paper trail in the archival record.” [p. 24]
5 Slim, supra note 3 (“… most authoritative … should be widely read by humanitarian, military, legal, and diplomatic professionals …”).
6 Of course, the book manuscript was submitted before the Russian invasion in February 2022 and thus Slim could not take into account the horrendous development of this (most recent) war.
7 Cf. Art. 48 AP I: “…Parties … shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.“
8 ICRC, Customary IHL Study, Vol. I, 2005, pp. 3 ff. (5) with Rules 1-10; for further references see Ambos, Treatise ICL, Vol. II, 2nd ed 2022, p. 172 with fn. 326.
9 The Romanian delegate Luca, herself a victim of the Holocaust, mentioned her family’s extermination and asked the delegates whether they could imagine a “new Ausschwitz”: “if, in a future war, the parties to the conflicts can employ means of extermination such as asphyxiating gases, gar chamber and atomic bombs, what is the use of [this] Convention?” (quoted according to van Dijk, p. 247).
10 See also Slim, supra note 3 (“new myth that the Hague does weapons and Geneva does victims.”).
11 Slim, supra note 3.
12 The same applies, in essence, to spies and saboteurs (Art. 5(2) GC IV) but all these persons have to “be treated with humanity” and shall not be deprived of their fair trial rights (Art. 5(3) GC IV).
13 Van Dijk, at p. 129, refers to the French distinction between the acts of the Nazi occupiers and their own in Indochina: “… this attempt to apply rights conceptions to European occupation while trying to legally sideline the wars of decolonization proved extremely difficult at times.”
14 See also van Dijk, supra note 2 (also taking issue with the “ICRC’s agenda of neutrality” as “a highly contested one…”).
15 As privately admitted by ICRC negotiator Pilloud (according to van Dijk, p. 320): he “hardly dared to think what would have become of the treaty without the presence of [the Soviet] delegation.”

SUGGESTED CITATION  Ambos, Kai: Humanizing Warfare as a Project of Power Politics and Colonial Exclusion: A Review Essay, VerfBlog, 2023/4/05, https://verfassungsblog.de/humanizing-warfare-as-a-project-of-power-politics-and-colonial-exclusion/, DOI: 10.17176/20230405-190257-0.

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