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Humanitarian Law (IL915)


This module aims to consider the increasingly complex inter-relationship between law and humanitarianism. In tracking changing ideas about 'natural' disasters and international intervention, it first focuses on the key questions that these events can raise: do law, politics, and humanitarianism live up to the tests posed by disaster and crisis? In what ways might disasters be considered injustices provoking a legal response? Does law have a positive role to play or does it act as a burden? What legal and political agency have disaster victims asserted or been denied? And what do disasters reveal about poverty, inequality, and social injustice through the operation or absence of law?

The module also aims to address the evolution of the laws of war (universally called International Humanitarian Law) and the specific regimes that are supposed to govern the conduct of warfare, 'humanitarian' intervention and post conflict occupation and reconstruction.


The module will consist of 5 days sessions.

The main topics covered are:

  • Introducing the concepts of humanitarian law
  • Natural disaster and law
  • Humanitarian law after conflict
  • Modern military occupation
  • Development and humanitarianism

We will assess learning outcomes by way of a 4000 word written assignment due for submission on the 6th June 2019. You will write a journalistic style comment/report piece in keeping with, for instance, the Guardian Long Read. We will give full guidance during the module on how to go about this and the topics you may want to cover. We will give you some questions to help you choose your subject.

Illustrative syllabus

Day 1: Introducing the concept(s) of humanitarian law

Over the course of the day we will explore the many dimensions of humanitarian law – we will consider its history rooted in the 19th century response to the suffering in war, to its contemporary interpretation as a framing mechanism for international action in relation to natural disasters, military interventions and the conduct in warfare. We will also be examining the various concepts applicable to this legal arena and seeing how to apply such critique through case studies.

Initial Reading:

Hazel Healy ‘Who cares? Humanitarianism under threat’ New Internationalist April 2018

ICRC Fact Sheet 'What is International Humanitarian Law' [please click on pdf on that page]

Day 2: Natural Disaster and Law

Angela Sherwood, who teaches at Queen Mary University, will join us to talk about the connections between disasters, harm/crime, and humanitarianism. Disasters are some of the world’s deadliest and most harmful events. Whether they occur suddenly (e.g. earthquakes) or have a slow-onset effect (e.g. famines), disasters often claim the lives of thousands of people and generate unprecedented levels of population mobility, material damage, and economic hardship. Scholars have long argued that the human and material losses caused by “natural” disasters are not the product of specific hazardous events, but rather influenced by social, political and economic forces. For this reason, there has been growing criminological interest to consider the role of the state in perpetuating disaster harms through their acts and omissions. Bearing this in mind, this class will consider a range of harms caused by disasters from a state crime perspective, examining different forms of state deviance that increase population vulnerability to disasters and lead to a wide range of human rights violations.

Initial Reading:

Jonathan Katz The Big Truck that went by' [extract]

Day 3: Development and Humanitarianism

Dallal Stevens, Professor of Refugee Law at Warwick, will join us to consider the unintended consequences of humanitarian operations in the light of the refugee crises across the globe. How do long term remedies for enduring problems of under-development co-exist with the demands for immediate action to relieve suffering from some disaster or sequence of disasters? How does law gauge or interfere with the behaviour of NGOs and states?

Initial Readings:

Dallal Stevens, Crossing the Mediterranean Lacuna Magazine 2017

Daniel Trilling 'Five Myths about the Refugee Crisis' Guardian Long Read

Day 4: Humanitarian law after conflict

From Germany post 1945 to contemporary operations of international criminal tribunals, we will look at the many ways in which intervention in a ravaged society as an antidote to totalitarianism and justice has been undertaken. By exploring the legal and political interaction in the affairs of a defeated nation, we will examine how law might dictate the nature of humanitarian response and serve to acquire some (criminal?) justice.

Initial Reading: have a brief look at some of these (mostly short) articles or extract

Tzvetan Todorov 'The Limitations of Justice'

Antoine Garapon 'Limitations of Justice'

Philippe Flory, 'International Criminal Justice and Truth Commissions'

AT Williams, A Passing Fury [extract which looks at the complexities of searching for justice after WWII]

Day 5: Modern military occupation

Modern conflicts tend to be extremely complex and framed by a multiplicity of international legal regimes. Navigating one’s way through these in the context of regime change or occupation is equally difficult. We will look at the record of the US and UK intervention in Iraq and compare this with the UN’s Responsibility to Protect agenda and other conflicts such as in Syria. This will include considering how political opposition to state action may or may not inform the operation of humanitarian law.

Initial Reading:

AT Williams, The Death of Baha Mousa (2012 extract)

AT Williams, ‘The Iraq Abuse Allegations and the Limits of UK Law’ (2018) Public Law 461-481


Week Commencing 26/04/21

(Week 30, Thursday - Friday)

Week Commencing 04/05/21

(Week 31, Tuesday - Thursday)



Andrew Williams

Professor Andrew Williams

Children smile as they carry a bottle of detergent supplied by UKaid from the British government, as part of the UK

Children smile as they carry a bottle of detergent supplied by UKaid from the British government, as part of the UK's response to the floods in Pakistan. Photo by Department for International Development (CC BY 2.0)

From the protections offered humanitarian workers during military conflicts to the human rights of citizens in receipt of humanitarian relief to the responses to disasters, international and local laws have an impact on all humanitarian-inspired interventions. 

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