How security and military challenges can shape or regress international humanitarian law


On Monday, 21 September 2015, the AHRCentre, the Australian Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomed Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier and Laurence Binet from MSF International to give their thoughts on how politics and the law manifest in past and present humanitarian crises. Bouchet-Saulnier spoke about her work as MSF International’s legal director since 1991, and on her current project to make MSF’s The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law available online this year. Binet, the second speaker, detailed her continuing work as MSF International’s Director of Studies on the Speaking Out Case Studies project, which documents MSF’s past denunciations of obstacles to humanitarian action.

Bouchet-Saulnier delved into old and new security and military challenges to humanitarian action, and how these challenges can shape or regress international humanitarian law (‘IHL’). Within this subject, Bouchet-Saulnier was frank about how desires to combat impunity are sadly countered by dissident states’ narrow interpretations, or outright neglect, of IHL. She also spoke on how difficult it is to reconcile the goals of humanitarian action with political, non-interventionist logic, concluding that ‘humanitarian action should never be one war behind’ even when there is political deadlock. Bouchet-Saulnier concluded by exemplifying some of these issues in Syria and Ukraine.

Binet explained the Speaking Out Case Studies project and its rationale, and delved into lessons that stem from the project. She recounted that MSF started the project because there was no objective record of instances when MSF spoke out against obstacles to humanitarian action. Referring to the most recently released case study on Srebrenica, Binet exemplified typical dilemmas that MSF personnel face in their work, and the questions raised about the roles of an independent humanitarian organisation like MSF.

The packed room of academics, practitioners, students, and other interested parties also had the chance to engage with the two guest speakers. During this dialogue, attendees elicited the speakers’ thoughts on multiple, difficult issues within IHL and MSF’s work, including MSF’s approach to the national Red Cross society in Syria, and MSF’s separation from political normalisation campaigns in Afghanistan.

To access the latest case study on MSF’s approach to Srebrenica between 1993-2003, click here.


With thanks to AHRCentre intern Darren Ou Yong for writing this summation of the event.