On Tuesday 21st July at the China in the World Auditorium, students, academics and professionals attended a discussion with Dr Knut Dörmann, Chief Legal Officer of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and head of its legal division. The talk was chaired and introduced by ANU Associate Professors Rob McLaughlin and David Letts respectively, with the support of the ANU College of Law, the ICRC, and the Australian Red Cross.

The talk centred on the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in the context of the ICRC’s work and explored the challenges surrounding IHL violations by a wide range of actors as well as ICRC responses to these difficulties.

Listing his greatest challenges, Dörmann identified the struggle to ensure global respect for IHL and its development, and claimed that currently the “major and most fundamental rules [in international law] are being flaunted” by various actors around the world. Furthermore, he also cited the complexity of dealing with non-state actors in armed conflict, as well as the rules surrounding detention in international armed conflict.

The audience was then given the chance to ask Dörmann questions. Dörmann spoke of the difficulties in promoting the rule of law during the Iraq invasion and 2014 assault on Gaza and then moved to ethical considerations within the ICRC’s legal work.

Afterwards he related the complexities in defining armed conflict, particularly between the boundaries of the domestic and international, according to the criteria of organisational capacities and the level of violence. He also clarified the ICRC’s position on war crimes situations: the “preferred mode of action… is confidential dialogue with state authorities” and refusing to provide testimony to the ICC in order to ensure humanitarian access to all sides of a conflict situation.

At the conclusion of the talk, drinks were served in the foyer. Dörmann told Woroni that he was “absolutely” affected by the crimes he has had to work on.

“You can’t just take it as business as usual. When you see the suffering of individuals… it’s something that clearly touches you. You can’t just look at this through the analytical legal perspective, there’s always a personal history behind the suffering,” he said.

“Personally I’ve seen a couple of things as well when I was visiting migrants or engaging with local communities in the midst of conflict. This is something that is very touching and it makes you work harder, from where we can have influence as lawyers.”

When asked about the importance of informing the public about IHL, Dörmann said that it was needed because “we see a lot of violence in the world”. He concluded that: “ultimately it’s a collective responsibility to work for respect of norms and by engaging with all levels of society. Obviously you’d want to reach out first to decision-makers[W1] , but the societal consensus and recognition of the work is important.”