Attending the IIDH Summer Session on International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, and International Criminal Law

June 28 - July 28, 2019 | Strasbourg, France
50th annual summer session of the Shuchita thapar fnf program manager Fondation René Cassin’s Institut International des Droits de l'Homme (IIDH)

I was fortunate to be part of a large contingent supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) to attend the 50th annual summer session of the Fondation René Cassin’s Institut International des Droits de l'Homme (IIDH). As always, the session was conducted in Strasbourg, where IIDH is based. This year’s session covered two weeks of international human rights law, and a week each of international humanitarian law and international criminal law.

As a lawyer with a keen interest in humanitarian law and international criminal law, and the program manager for the human rights work of the FNF's Regional Office South Asia, I was delighted to be able to attend the summer session. This gave me a chance to learn more about a relatively niche body of law, and to understand how these systems are incorporated in other jurisdictions, so that I can advocate for these better in my home jurisdiction, and use them to inform my work for the Foundation.

The programme began with a two-day introduction to the city of Strasbourg and the subject matter of the summer session. We had a chance to explore the lovely city —by boat and on foot—and Mr. Daouda Seck and Ms. Michaela Lissowsky led the group in studying the evolution of human rights and international criminal justice around the world.

The IIDH school began in earnest on 1 July 2019. Our first classes on international human rights law were with Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. He took us through the history of the United Nations human rights system, with which he has extensive personal and professional experience. He also gave us a nuanced perspective on not just the system as it exists but also the factors that influence future directions. Prof. Alston set the bar very high for the classes to come, and we were lucky to benefit from the experience of several scholars in learning about the EU, Asian, African, Arab and American human rights systems. The contrast in these systems can be quite stark, and learning about them together throws into sharp relief inequities in the protections that various governments around the world allow their citizens.

The third week of the programme commenced with the study of the history and evolution of criminal law and criminal justice. We studied the various international courts set up to ostensibly provide justice for several of the largest failings of humanity over the past century, beginning from the Nuremberg trials, to the special tribunals in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Yugoslavia. We then began to study the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, and discussed in some detail the realpolitik that detracts from its effectiveness, both perceived and in actuality.

The summer session wrapped up with a week covering international humanitarian law, the body of laws governing the conduct of war. This body of law was developed by, and is primarily practiced by the International Committee of the Red Cross following its founders’ experience of unrestrained warfare in Solferino. While this law is of tremendous practical importance, it is constrained by the situations in which it applies, and by the lack of independent enforcement mechanisms.

Some key takeaways from the discussions across three bodies of law included the realisation that India and South Asia more generally lack human rights enforcement mechanisms, and have often blocked any attempts to create such mechanisms. While SAARC has a human rights committee, it has not made recognisable progress towards a charter for human rights. In addition, while India is a signatory to several of the major human rights treaties, they are often not signatories to the Optional Protocols, which provide for enforcement. This is also true of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Optional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions. This last is perhaps the most worrying, because Optional Protocol II is what guarantees minimum standards of protection to participants in domestic armed conflicts.

I was also reminded that international law is fraught with politics, with only a slim veneer of legalism over it especially, given the constitution and powers of the UN Security Council. This makes it far more difficult to justify inclusion in the system as an unqualified good, but a well-functioning system - like that in the EU) - can be of substantial value to citizens.

I am thankful to FNF for the opportunity to have attended this programme. I would especially like to thank colleagues from around the world who provided invaluable support, including Martina Helmy, Rahel Zibner, Daouda Seck and Michaela Lissowsky.

shuchita thapar program manager fnf south asia human rights

Shuchita Thapar

Shuchita Thapar is the Program Manager - Human Rights at the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in New Delhi. She recently attended the 50th annual summer session of the Fondation René Cassin’s Institut International des Droits de l'Homme (IIDH). In this report, she is sharing her thoughts.