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School of war
by Jean-François Berger

The IIHL'courses on the law of armed conflict gather military personnel of every nationality.

Each year, soldiers from all over the world go back to school. The place is San Remo, on the Italian coast; the subject, the law of war. This unique seat of learning has just celebrated its 30th birthday and it is still as busy as ever.

Pearl of the Riviera dei Fiori, San Remo is a fashionable, if a touch faded, garden-city overlooking the sea and basking in an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. A stone's throw from the beaches of fine sand rises the unmistakable white bulk of the Casino. It is reached by the Corso dell'Imperatrice, named after the Tsarina of Russia, Maria Alexandrovna, who in 1874 donated the palm trees which line the esplanade. On the fringe of the town clusters a group of villas in neo-renaissance style - art nouveau or just plain kitsch - interspersed with tropical vegetation. Among them is Villa Nobel, historic seat of the Institute of International Humanitarian Law (IIHL), and Villa Ormond, which houses the classrooms.

The institute was founded in 1970 by a group of lawyers and diplomats. Its initial purpose was to provide a place for government experts to discuss sensitive issues off the record and to prepare the ground for future international negotiations. Thus, between 1974 and 1977, "the leading figures of international relations met in San Remo to lay the foundations for what were to become the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions," recalls Jacques Meurant, a member of the IIHL from the very beginning. Once adopted, however, these legal instruments are of little use if they are not made accessible, and above all understandable, to the people for whom they are mainly intended, i.e., soldiers.

Military precision

With this in mind, the institute established an educational wing to train military personnel in the application of the rules of humanitarian law. "The greatest challenge is to convince a commander that the law is not an obstacle to military action, but rather it canbe an advantage," explains Colonel Garraway, formerly legal advisor to the British army during the Gulf war and currently one of the institute's instructors. To meet this challenge, the educators from the military department of the IIHL have set up a programme of courses and seminars, which has already seen some 3,000 participants from 160 countries pass through its doors. The jewel in the crown is the international military course on the law of armed conflict. Devised more than 20 years ago by Colonel de Mulinen, at the time an ICRC delegate, the course is in its 83rd edition and is held with ritual regularity at Villa Ormond. Given the present context, heavy emphasis is placed on multinational peacekeeping operations.

The teaching provided in San Remo aims to be universal. To achieve this, the IIHL relies on the quality and diversity of its network of instructors and experts. According to Jovan Patrnojic, president of the institute and founder member, "the most important requirement is to translate humanitarian law into military language".

For this reason, the courses are conducted by officers, most of whom are provided by states from the northern hemisphere, and are primarily held in English, French and Spanish, and occasionally in Portuguese, Russian and Arabic. In a sign of the times, a Chinese instructor will shortly be joining the pool of instructors.

Recently, the IIHL has developed new teaching modules designed for military doctors and directors ofarmy training programmes. Stefania Baldini, secretary-general of the institute, believes that the creation of more specialized tools is a positive step, but "it would be best to consolidate the pedagogical framework for a while", to avoid getting carried away.

For its part, the ICRC is playing an important support role. Upstream, it helps with the recruitment of participants for the military courses, picked mostly from among its contacts in the field. It also endeavours to enhance the benefits of the centralized courses, by organizing national and regionalcourses in the countries from which the soldiers trained in San Remo come. "As a platform for dialogue, San Remo is unrivalled," says Patrick Brugger, head of the ICRC's armed forces unit. "That is why our partnership with the institute, which is based on complementarity, must remain strong."

Villa Alfred Nobel, historic seat of the San Remo Institute.

The San Remo Institute plays host to personalities from all over the world. Here, representatives of the Korean Red Cross (South Korea) receive an award for efforts to reunite separated Korean families; presiding over the ceremony are Stefania Baldini and Jovan Patrnojic, secretary general and president of the institute respectively.

What debate?

The raison d'être of the institute is not restricted to the conduct of soldiers on the battlefield, however. The protection of refugees also figures on the agenda, essentially through courses on international refugee law designed for government officials and NGOs and organized with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees.

In addition, one of the stated ambitions of the IIHL is to be a forum for discussion open to anyone involved in humanitarian action. Debate on the principal issues of humanitarian concern is still one of the strong attractions of the institute. They can take the form of round-table discussions on such topics as the Kosovo experience, internal conflicts and humanitarian action versus the sovereignty of states. But given the proliferation of meetings of this kind, there is a need to be especially dynamic in order to be effective in this area. For, even though many of the topics covered by the representatives of governments, the UN and the Red Cross are extremely pertinent - for example, the interdependence of human rights and humanitarian law - the results do not always come up to expectations. At best, the expert debates enable participants to test out new ideas and to get a feeling for the different perceptions and interests of the various stake-holders in today's environment, in particular with regard to so-called "humanitarian interventions". At worst, the discussions have a tendency to just go around in circles.

Indeed, one of the underlying causes of this can be attributed to the "ageing" of the institute. "We have to break out of the closed circle of experts and be careful not to become a retired gentlemen's club," explains Stefania Baldini. The statement is certainly clear-sighted, but how do you avoid such a pitfall? One way of revitalizing the institute that is currently being explored is to focus more on research and internships. According to Yves Sandoz, representative of the ICRC and president of the institute's Academic Committee, "We need to identify serious topics for research, such as that carried out a few years ago on war at sea." The protection of victims of internal conflicts will clearly be one of the key themes for the institute to address in the future.

An essential task

All these activities have their price, of course: US$ 800,000 in 2000, which is far from secured in advance. The military courses take up the lion's share and are only partially covered by the registration fees; the rest is made up by grants. In this regard, the support provided by some Western governments, by the commune of San Remo and the province of Imperia, as well as by the ICRC, is essential. In addition, there are private donations and contributions from National Societies, beginning with the Italian Red Cross. According to its forceful president, Mariapia Garavaglia, who is also vice-president of the Federation, "The spirit of San Remo is an inspiration for National Societies, which should lead to closer cooperation with the institute." Ultimately, what is lacking today is proper fund-raising, which can rely on a variety of funding sources, including the private sector and foundations. In this respect, the liaison office in Geneva - recently reinforced with the support of the Swiss authorities - should certainly help to overcome this deficiency.

Thirty years is without doubt a worthy anniversary. The pioneering activities of the institute over this period are the best proof of that. But what about its future prospects? Faced with a growing demand for more specialization, the institute's management is aware of the dangers of overdiversifying. They are nonetheless unanimous in wanting to continue to put the main emphasis on training military personnel and on reaffirming the value of humanitarian law. And what is the impact? As Colonel Garraway says, "San Remo is a drip-by-drip process." His colleague, Major Clive Whitwham, puts it another way: "San Remo plays a small but vital part in spreading humanity to conflicts."

 

Jean-François Berger



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