Twenty years of IHL in Poland
by Katarzyna Derlicka
Established over 20 years ago during the communist regime, the
Warsaw Summer Course in International Humanitarian Law is today
a must for lawyers and legal experts. More than 600 people have
taken part in the course since its creation.
"What other city but Warsaw, rising from the ruins of
a world war, could better embody the spirit of humanity? Like
the phoenix raising from the ashes, Warsaw is the symbol of
hope and the negation of war's devastating effects just as
the Red Cross is a symbol of peace amidst the devastation."
Making these remarks at the opening of the First European
Red Cross Seminar on Dissemination of Inter-national Humanitarian
Law (IHL) in 1977, ICRC president Alexandre Hay explained
the reasons for choosing Warsaw as the place for the seminar.
He did not realize then that the meeting would give birth
to an initiative that would be hosted in the city for decades
the Warsaw Summer Course in IHL.
The seminar was an unprecedented initiative by the ICRC,
which brought together European and North American National
Societies to discuss the growing need for wider dissemination
of IHL among different groups. Following the seminar, the
Polish Red Cross (PRC), with the cooperation of the ICRC,
organized a symposium for law professors in 1979 in Cracow
(Poland). It was there that the idea of establishing a course
on IHL for law students from Europe and North America was
east and west
Warsaw was chosen as the site for the course for several
reasons; one of them being its successful reconstruction,
as President Hay mentioned in his speech, following the terrible
devastation of the Second World War. Another was the PRC's
commitment. Although a number of important legal figures in
the country came up with the idea, a group of academics at
the Polish Red Cross took the lead and organized the course.
Among them was Professor Remigiusz Bierzanek, who became a
leader in IHL dissemination at the PRC, responsible for establishing
the Warsaw Summer Course in IHL.
The decision to hold the course in Warsaw was not without
political significance. In the centre of Europe, Poland has
always been a bridge linking the west with the east. By establishing
the course in this country, the PRC hoped to initiate a dialogue
on humanitarian issues between the divided regions.
In 1981, the first course took place bringing together 29
students mainly from western countries and Poland. For some
participants the course had a lasting impact on their lives.
Elzbieta Mikos-Skuza, one of the Polish participants, explains
that it was a coincidence she found herself at the course,
being dragged in by a colleague at the last minute. "Contact
with foreign professors and students in those times was something
very special," says Mikos-Skuza. She found the subject
fascinating. "A year later, I was writing my master's
thesis on the Additional Protocols," she explains. Today
she is an IHL professor at the Warsaw University, as well
as the PRC's legal adviser. She also is a lecturer at the
In December 1981, martial law was introduced in Poland. The
harsh political suppression brought fear and misery into many
people's lives. "The continuation of the course was threatened
by the events. For two years there was no course," explains
Alina Kusmierczyk, who works at the PRC and has been co-organizer
of the course since its inception. "In those days all
activities of the ICRC, the International Federation, and
the PRC in Warsaw were focused on political internees and
detainees, as well as providing relief," she recalls.
For Kusmierczyk and Mikos-Skuza, contact with the Red Cross
during that period was especially precious. "It was like
a ray of light amidst the darkness it gave us hope
and helped us to carry on with our work," explains Mikos-Skuza.
"As an attorney who practiced civil litigation in the
US system for several years before joining the Red Cross as
a full-time employee, I was deeply impressed by the experience
provided by the Warsaw course. The depth of the content exceeded
my expectations. Interestingly four of my colleagues in the
International Services department of the ARC are alumnae of
the Warsaw course and are directly involved in our dissemination
James R. Ackley, Director, Chapter International Support
International Services Department, American Red Cross.
"The first Warsaw Summer School in 1981 was my first
contact with IHL and the Red Cross. My international law professor
was sceptical. He asked did I really believe that law can
work in armed conflicts? In Warsaw, I received a good introduction
to IHL. Finding an answer to the question posed by my professor
intrigued me (
) Based on my experience, both working
at the ICRC and co-authoring a book entitled How does Law
Protect in War?, I teach my students that IHL is a vital contribution
to international law."
Marco Sassòli, professor of international law
at the University of Quebec in Montreal,
Canada and voluntary expert on IHL at the Canadian Red Cross.
"As both a participant and a lecturer, there is no doubt
regarding the formative and intellectual influence the Warsaw
Summer School has had on me, let alone the opportunity it
gave me to understand and appreciate the role of the ICRC
as the safekeeper of the Geneva Conventions. Knowing the provisions
of IHL is one thing, but those provisions come with a specific
historical context as well as a terrific set of practical
experiences and insights which the ICRC carries and passes
on like a baton in a relay-race from one generation to the
Dino Kritsiotis, senior lecturer at Nottingham School
of Law, UK.
In 2002, the Warsaw Summer Course celebrated its 20th session
with 40 participants coming from over 30 countries. Recently,
the course has expanded geographically similar courses
have been initiated in Africa, Latin America and South Asia.
The course offers the ICRC, which has played a key role from
the very beginning in its organization, a unique opportunity
to train university students and young professionals in the
field of IHL. "The courses have gained such a high reputation
that they are now considered almost as a prerequisite for
ICRC or National Society legal experts," explains Antoine
Bouvier, ICRC delegate to academic institutions and course
director since 1998.
"Over the years the Warsaw Summer Course has become
the speciality of the Polish Red Cross," laughs Kusmierczyk.
A recent study conducted shows the percentage of the graduates
who continue to work for the Red Cross is over 50 per cent.
"Some other National Societies would happily volunteer
to take the Warsaw course over from us," says Kusmierczyk.
"But who could imagine the Warsaw Summer course not being
Katarzyna Derlicka works in the international department of
the Polish Red Cross.
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