Humanitarian law given boost by new Geneva centre

Geneva is already home to a host of institutions dealing with humanitarian issues.

As the International Criminal Court takes shape, Geneva is staking its claim to be the focal point of academic research into humanitarian law.

This content was published on July 21, 2002 - 11:54

Two of the city's leading seats of learning - Geneva University and the Graduate Institute of International Studies - have created what promises to be a heavyweight academic institution devoted to the question of international humanitarian law.

It comes at time when humanitarian law is under close scrutiny, thanks to the establishment of the International Criminal Court - with or without the blessing of the United States - and because the US-led "war on terror" and the Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian territories have raised questions about the relevance of the Geneva Conventions.

Research projects are already under way at the University Centre for International Humanitarian Law (CUDIH), and the centre will welcome 35 students this autumn.

The CUDIH assumes even greater credibility given its unique location. Not only do the rules of conduct in war bear the city's name, but the centre also has obvious synergies with Geneva-based organisations that deal with such issues: the ICRC, the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and a welter of other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Restoring standing

It is often said that, in a globalising world, Geneva and Switzerland have lost some of their standing in recent years. The creation of the CUDIH - like the more assertive foreign policy that is accompanying Swiss membership of the United Nations - is a way of reasserting Geneva's place at the centre of international relations.

The centre has had a long gestation period, but it has taken at least ten years to summon up the political will to make it a reality.

"No-one really took the initiative. But the moment had come. If we had not created it here now, it would have been created somewhere else. Everyone felt that it absolutely had to be in Geneva," says Andreas Auer, dean of the Law Faculty at Geneva University.

Ironically, Auer sees the conflict between the US and its allies over the International Criminal Court and the Middle East as positive. Washington is refusing to sign up to the court over fears that its citizens could be hauled before it.

Interpreting the law

"The difference of opinion between the US and its European partners, and between Israel and the EU is, in terms of scientific debate, a good thing. It's an encouraging sign of life. It shows that there is not just one way of interpreting international humanitarian law," Auer told swissinfo.

It is for that reason that the centre will not be putting a uniquely Swiss or European slant on the question of humanitarian law. American professors will also contribute to its programmes, allowing for a rich exchange of perspectives.

Nor will the centre's academics just concentrate on interpretations of the Geneva Conventions. "International humanitarian law encompasses not only traditional ICRC-type conventions, but also human rights protection and international criminal law - especially since the creation of the International Criminal Court," Auer says.

Academic freedom

The CUDIH comes into being as the Swiss government and the ICRC embark on a public relations campaign on behalf of the Geneva Conventions, in response to events since September 11.

The promotion of international humanitarian law is a central component of Swiss foreign policy, and the new Geneva centre is being seen as another element of that strategy. Indeed, the Swiss federal government will ultimately provide much of its funding, though Andreas Auer insists the CUDIH is going to be no-one's lackey.

"Only by being independent of government influence and organisations can we deal in a scientific way with this question," he told swissinfo.

"The Swiss government and the ICRC recognise that they need an independent academic centre to answer specific questions and to put forward strong opinions that might be more difficult for a governmental agency or the ICRC," he said, pointing out that this academic freedom would help win the centre credibility.

Humanitarian law has been taught in Geneva's Law Faculty for 40 years, and in that time it has developed close ties with other academic institutions around the world that have similar courses. These will be maintained and strengthened. "We do not want to be the only ones studying in this field," Auer says.

The central element of the centre's teaching will be an LLM Masters qualification in international humanitarian law, for which 35 law graduates, two-thirds of them foreigners, have enrolled for the next academic year.

In addition, the centre will provide professional training for those working in the humanitarian field, and an internet-based distance-learning scheme.

"If you think about all the military forces around the world, the government agencies and non-government organisations, there are thousands - if not millions - of people who need to know about international humanitarian law," Auer says.

by Roy Probert

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