NATO troops training in Spain 2015 (Miks Usans)



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. 

Next Steps

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. 

Steering Group

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. 

Andrew Bell
Andrew Bell
Andrew Bell, Ph.D., J.D., is an assistant professor of international studies at Indiana University and a non-resident research fellow at the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy. He has held fellowships with the Institute of Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


Dale Stephens
Dale Stephens
Dale Stephens, SJD, CSM,  FAAL is a former Navy Legal Officer and now Professor at Adelaide University Law School.  He is Director of the Adelaide Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics.









  • E Stubbins Bates, 'Towards Effective Military Training in International Humanitarian Law' (2015) 96 International Review of the Red Cross 795
    The obligation to train troops in international humanitarian law (IHL) is simply stated and its implementation delegated to State discretion. This reflects a past assumption that mere dissemination of IHL would be an effective contribution to the prevention of violations. Academic literature has evolved so that dissemination alone is now known to be insufficient for compliance, while the ICRC's integration model emphasizes the relevance of IHL to all aspects of military decision-making. A separate process, the ICRC/Government of Switzerland Initiative on Strengthening Compliance with IHL, is still in its consultative stages at the time of writing, but may result in voluntary State reporting and/or thematic discussions at meetings of States. This article synthesizes academic and practitioner insights on effective IHL training, and suggests a collaborative rubric for informative, standardized reporting on IHL training. Such a rubric could enable States and researchers to share best practice and future innovations on IHL training, using a streamlined, cost-effective tool.
  • E Stubbins Bates, 'The British Army's Training in International Humanitarian Law' (2020) 25 Journal of Conflict and Security Law 291
    States must disseminate international humanitarian law (IHL) and integrate it into military instruction. Implementation of the IHL training obligation was delayed in the UK; when the government asserted that IHL was inapplicable to colonial warfare, resisted the development of the IHL of non-international armed conflict, and was keen to maintain the nuclear deterrent. Absent or perfunctory IHL training correlated with recurrent violations of the prohibitions of torture and inhuman treatment, from the 1950s to the 2000s. Despite official assertions that the British Army’s training in IHL was being reformed following the death of Baha Mousa in British military custody in 2003, there were gradual changes from 2004 to 2011, and more thorough improvements from 2012 to 2017. Training materials for soldiers and officers now offer breadth and detail on IHL, with elements of international human rights law. They implement the 71 recommendations in the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry Report which the Ministry of Defence accepted, and are supplemented by practical training. Yet these are reactive reforms, which still lack norm-by-norm evaluation of soldiers’ understanding. Prohibitions on humiliating or degrading treatment of a sexual nature, and on the intentional infliction of severe mental pain and suffering are (respectively) under-emphasised and absent. References to the necessity of restraint positions (as opposed to the prohibited stress positions) may cause confusion. There is a simplistic suggestion that reprisals are lawful if they are politically authorised. Training reforms have been cited as one reason to close criminal investigations into alleged war crimes: a response which neglects coexistent investigatory obligations.
  • E Stubbins Bates, 'Unpacking the Potential of “Ensure Respect” in Common Article 1' (2020) Just Security
    The obligation to ‘respect and ensure respect’ for Geneva law ‘in all circumstances’ has been interpreted with breadth and depth in the Updated Commentary to the Third Geneva Convention. While the inter-state due diligence obligation crafted in the Commentary has a doubtful legal basis, and is unlikely to be universally implemented; the Commentary offers a blueprint for IHL’s implementation and enforcement. Debates on the legal basis of the ICRC’s outward-facing due diligence reading of ‘ensure respect’ should not be a distraction from the potential of the Updated Commentary for IHL compliance, and more can be done to unpack its potential to improve the protection of prisoners of war.