Why respect international humanitarian law? “It’s good for you whoever you are. The perpetrator is damaged, not just the victim.”
One of eight remarkable classmates said this last night in the Red Cross International Humanitarian Law class I attended at the Chicago Chapter. The class, at no cost to the student, teaches participants about the body of rules and principles that seeks to save lives and alleviate suffering during armed conflict.
My discussion partner for group exercises was a vibrant and dynamic man from the Sudan. Together, we grappled with questions like, “What is dignity?” and “Do you think it makes sense to have laws that limit suffering in armed conflict?” and “Does a certain level of violence have to occur for it to be considered an armed conflict?”
In trying to formulate answers, my classmates and I were reminded of the duties and privileges that come with being human. We gained a new appreciation for the power of neutrality and its ability to create accountability without violence.
Those engaged in wars and armed conflicts are fighting for something. And when the fighting ends, the best we can hope for is that the “something” can be rebuilt on a foundation that is comprised of solid things – goodness, respect, dignity, the humane, innocence.
Even my classmates were careful to respect one another and the constructive nature of the class. They would caveat answers to complex questions with phrases like, “If you set aside whether war is an allowable and acceptable action…” or “Though I recognize that I have the luxury of turning the conflict off with my remote, I think…”
Yes, I learned a lot in the class last night about the Geneva Conventions, the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a long, relentless process to adapt humanitarian law to keep up with people’s clever ways of working around it. As our facilitator aptly pointed out, “The law has to change all the time because people want to kill each other and find loopholes to do it.”
But I also witnessed my classmates protect one another’s dignity, and I witnessed our facilitator gracefully admit that we don’t know the answers to many of the questions raised in this tricky business of preserving humanity. Even tweeters who virtually participated, played nice and weighed in respectfully.
We watched several brief videos that are used to educate combatants about the laws that govern humanitarianism during war. They broadcast ideas like, “True fighters will treat wounded opponents with respect and compassion.”
All videos ended the same way, though. “This same message is also broadcast to enemy forces.”
A difficult-to-swallow, but good ending, don’t you think? The reminder that we are all united on one thing, at least — suffering.
– By Jackie Mitchell, American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, @your_mssunshine