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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 shaped.


Bridging 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 course.

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 efforts."

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 next."

Dino Kritsiotis, senior lecturer at Nottingham School of Law, UK.

Staying put

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 in Warsaw?"

Katarzyna Derlicka
Katarzyna Derlicka works in the international department of the Polish Red Cross.

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