Human Rights Institute Project Meets to Discuss Legal Standards in Armed Conflicts

Group seeks to extend legal standards applicable in international conflicts to conflicts between states and non-state groups

Media Contact: Public Affairs, 212-854-2650 or [email protected] 

New York, January 3, 2013—The Human Rights Institute of Columbia Law School recently hosted a meeting of its Project on Harmonizing Standards for Armed Conflict, which is exploring avenues for raising legal standards in non-international armed conflicts.
The two-year project, which is co-sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, seeks to extend the more highly developed legal regime applicable to international armed conflicts to conflicts between states and non-state groups. 
One of the challenges facing states involved in modern armed conflict results from the different legal regimes applicable to international and non-international conflicts, which impose significantly different treaty obligations, and thus significantly different standards of protection for individuals. The differences result in weaker treaty protections for individuals involved in non-international armed conflict and a lack of clarity in legal rules for military forces. They also create difficulties of coordination among states in multilateral conflicts such as Afghanistan.
The goal of the Harmonization Project is to explore the feasibility of extending the entire Geneva Convention treaty regime to all armed conflicts, with states adhering to this regime as a baseline for all armed conflicts via unilateral declarations. The Geneva Convention regime in its entirety currently applies to only international armed conflicts between states.
The Harmonization Project Steering Committee met at the end of November. The project is co-chaired by Sarah H. Cleveland,the Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights, and Sir Daniel Bethlehem, Visiting Professor of Law and the former Legal Adviser to the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, with support from Rebecca Ingber, National Security Fellow with the Human Rights Institute and Consulting Fellow for Law and Strategy with IISS.
“This is not a law reform project, in the sense of developing new law,” said Cleveland. “Rather, the goal is to explore whether it is possible to reduce disparities between the rules governing international and non-international armed conflicts by the simple device of extending the existing legal framework applicable to international armed conflicts into the sphere of non-international armed conflicts. If this approach is feasible, it would also have the effect of clarifying the rules, raising the level of protection, and reducing multilateral coordination problems in non-international armed conflicts, based upon rules that states are already comfortable administering in situations of armed conflict.”

The Harmonization Project’s Steering Committee is comprised of a distinctive group of leading experts in international humanitarian law from inside and outside of government, including Major General Blaise Cathcart, the Judge Advocate General of the Canadian Armed Forces; Brigadier General Richard C. Gross, U.S. Army, Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Col. (rtd) Dr. Bruce Oswald CSC, Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School; Sir Adam Roberts, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, Professor Michael Schmitt, U.S. Naval War College; Elizabeth Wilmhurst, Associate Fellow in International Law at Chatham House; and Marten Zwanenburg, Senior Legal Advisor in the Netherlands Ministry of Defense, among others. Additional experts, including in international human rights law, are also lending their expertise to the project.

In addition to the Harmonization Project, other efforts are underway to address different aspects of this issue, including by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Copenhagen Principles on Detention. The Project on Harmonizing Standards for Armed Conflict of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute seeks to complement these efforts. The Project will publish its report in late 2013.

For further information about the Project, please contact Rebecca Ingber at 212-854-0337 or [email protected]