The Oxford Guide to International Humanitarian Law, edited by Ben Saul & Dapo Akande, Oxford University Press, 2020, 442 pages, $ 49,95

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.

Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting 

One of the most memorable scenes in the film Good Will Hunting is when Matt Damon – playing the exceptionally brilliant, success-shunning Will Hunting, who does construction day labor when not moonlighting as a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, irreverently solving mind-twisting mathematical problems left on the blackboards by the professors for the students to solve – takes down an elitist, arrogant, and pretentious Harvard student who is toying with one of Will’s friends. I particularly liked the quote in this scene because of the truism of Will’s putdown: you can learn just as much by going to the books as you can by attending a top-flight university – and for a fraction of the cost.

Whenever I think of this scene, I am reminded of my torts professor who, upon entering the classroom the first day, dispensed with all expected formalities, and disabused many of us from thinking that we were in law school to stuff as much law into our heads as possible, saying: Those of you who want to learn the law go to the library, you will find it in the books. Those of you who wish to learn to think like lawyers and know what to do with the law once you find it in the library, stay.

What has this to do with this book review? Simple: if you can’t go to Oxford to study international humanitarian law (IHL), let Oxford come to you. If you are on the hunt for some solid knowledge on IHL, whether as a primer or a refresher, or a go to point of departure, then hunt no further than The Oxford Guide To International Humanitarian Law, edited by two stellar experts in this field, Ben Saul and Dapo Akande. You can skip the expensive in-class or on-line IHL course and be as wise (and wealthier to boot).

Ok, you will miss out on some of the pearls dispensed by the professors, will not have a chance to engage in interesting (and occasionally simple) discussions with your classmates, and will not get to indulge in the late-night university drinking and socializing where much of the thinking and learning really takes place. But not everyone has the time, the money, or the ability to attend post-graduate programs. Plus, not being constricted by a classroom environment or a professor’s lecture and suggested reading list, allows you to uninhibitedly explore in search for new ideas, new boundaries.

Before going any further, I would be remiss if I failed to add one caveat. While the editors preface that The Oxford Guide aims to be a “first port of call, and an essential reference work, for such non-experts dealing in IHL matters,” fair as this comment may be, my advice would be to first consult The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law, Second Edition, edited by Dieter Fleck (also published by OUP). Aside from being a bit denser, it is uniformly structured by first providing the sources of law, followed by concrete, sage commentary. It may be a bit dated since IHL has evolved in some areas since 2008 when The Handbook was last updated, but it remains, as far as I am concerned, one of the best sources as a starting point – irrespective of one’s experience in IHL. That said, The Oxford Guide not only complements The Handbook, but gives the reader a fresher/added perspective and updates with the most current IHL issues and legal debates. So, my advice, consider both The Handbook and The Oxford Guide as your initial port of calls, drawing on the rich and diverse observations and analyses of the select authors, not to mention the vast source material referenced.

 The Oxford Guide is set out in 18 relatively short but packed chapters, going from the general:

  1. History and sources, Jean-Maie Henckaerts
  2. Classification, Dapo Akande
  3. The Temporal and Geographical Reach of International Humanitarian Law, Emily Crawford
  4. Domains of Warfare, Sarah McCosker
  5. Persons Covered by International Humanitarian Law: Main Categories, Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne
  6. Fundamental Guarantees, Robert McLaughlin
  7. International Humanitarian Law and the Conduct of Hostilities, Michael N Schmitt
  8. Specifically Protected Persons and Objects, Robin Geiβ and Christophe Paulussen
  9. Protection of the Natural Environment, Cymie R Payne
  10. Methods of Warfare, Gloria Gaggioli and Nils Melzer
  11. Weapons, Stuart Casey-Maslen
  12. Detention in Armed Conflict, Jelena Pejic
  13. Occupation, Sylvain Vité
  14. Humanitarian Relief Operations, Eve Massingham and Kelisiana Thynne
  15. War Crimes, Robert Cryer
  16. Implementation of International Humanitarian Law, David Turns
  17. International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, Marco Sassòli
  18. Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and International Humanitarian Law, Ben Saul

As to be expected, there was a fair amount of unavoidable overlap. But frankly, I found this less of a distraction than a strength – especially if one decides to read The Oxford Guide cover-to-cover. Certain fundamental principles and precepts are not only reinforced, but as can be seen from the layout of the chapters, the reader is first treated to the general before heading to the specific, where, appreciably, context matters when it comes to the application of IHL – be it in international or non-international armed conflicts.

Considering the descriptive nature of The Oxford Guide, i.e., setting out the contours of IHL with all its limitations and disparate views, it makes little sense to comment on each chapter. Overall, there is not a weak chapter. All contributors deliver on the promised aims of the editors. Although I was impressed with all chapters, I do want to give an extra shout-out to four chapters that I particularly enjoyed reading.

I found exceptionally well-developed and reasoned Michael N. Schmitt’s chapter on International Humanitarian Law and the Conduct of Hostilities and Marco Marco Sassòli’s chapter on International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law.

Sarah McCosker’s chapter on Domains of Warfare was perhaps the most informative and thought-provoking. I have not been keeping up with emerging warfare technologies, and this gem of a chapter invites the curious and concerned to engage with inevitable IHL issues that technological progress is hoisting on the global community.

Lastly, I should also give a shout-out for Ben Saul’s chapter on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and International Humanitarian Law for cogently unpacking and plainly explaining the differences between terrorism and counterterrorism, how these and other associated terms are misunderstood or misapplied, and how IHL should (not always successfully) inform states on dealing with crimes that are or misconstrued as acts of terrorism.

The Oxford Guide To International Humanitarian Law is an essential source worth adding to your library. As is The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law.        




Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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