International humanitarian law (IHL) or the law of armed conflict sets parameters for lawful targeting in the conduct of hostilites; and protects the wounded, shipwrecked, prisoners of war, and civilians. States rarely share their practice on sensitive military matters, and recent diplomatic initiatives have failed to establish a meeting of states on compliance with the Four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. The Oxford Forum for IHL Compliance aims to fill this gap, establishing a dialogue between academics and military lawyers on IHL's less sensitive norms of implementation, and enabling the exchange of research findings and state practice on these norms.
With an academic steering group led by Dr Elizabeth Stubbins Bates, Dr Andrew Bell and Dr Dale Stephens, the Oxford Forum for International Humanitarian Law Compliance aims to use research findings on military training in IHL to inform a conversation with states as to how IHL's implementation works in practice. From differing perspectives, all three scholars have argued (see here, here, here and here; see also recent studies by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) here and here) that mere dissemination of IHL is insufficient to ensure future compliance; and that effective military training in IHL requires attention to law, shared values, and how to build restraint among armed forces and armed groups.
There are three purposes: to use research findings to inform dialogue with states on how these norms are implemented; to build trust and exchange of expertise between researchers and military interlocutors on IHL compliance; and in the long-term, to move diplomatic conversation on IHL compliance beyond mere platitudes and assertions that states implement it correctly.
An in-person workshop scheduled for late March 2020 was cancelled owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the Oxford Forum for International Humanitarian Law Compliance has begun online. The workshop had planned to produce a collaborative outcome document, with research findings informing a reporting tool for states to reflect upon and share their practice on military training in IHL.
In December 2020, members of the academic steering group held individual remote meetings with military lawyers from Australia, Denmark, the USA and Zambia. In these meetings, we shared our own research findings on the potential and limits of military training in international humanitarian law training, and discussed how the obligation to train troops in IHL translates into practice.
These are knowledge exchange conversations where existing research findings inform the dialogue; not interviews to gather new research data. Extracts of our conversations have been edited for release as video or audio podcasts, with the consent of all participants.
We are grateful to our military interlocutors for their willingness to share their practice and experience. In the video files, which are now available on the Oxford Law Faculty's YouTube channel, all participants are speaking in their personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed should not be taken to represent the official position of the defence ministry or armed forces in the relevant state.
We are currently coordinating a series of blog posts from scholars and military lawyers on best practice in military training in IHL, and the potential and limits of state reporting on compliance in IHL.
In the long-term, the Forum seeks to build trust and collaboration between a larger group of researchers and military lawyers, to share insight on the role of legal advisers in the armed forces, commanders' responsibility to prevent, suppress and report serious violations of IHL, the review of new weapons, and the neglect of IHL's existing monitoring tools.
Funding and Institutional Support
The project is funded by a University of Oxford Knowledge Exchange Seed Grant, and supported by the Law Faculty, University of Oxford; the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC); the Adelaide Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics; and the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, University of Indiana.
Elizabeth Stubbins Bates PhD, LL.M., BA, is a Junior Research Fellow in Law at Merton College, Oxford; an Early Career Fellow at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, and a Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.