It is estimated that the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed as many as 50 million people, more than the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War 1. Today, a hundred years later, we are living in the world of future history books, under lockdown from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in just a few months and upended the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every country, rich or poor. Health care systems even in many developed countries struggled to cope and their economies have been shattered.  Even though the virus transcends borders, nationality, race, religion, sex, age, and other identity markers, it is not as some have claimed the “great equalizer” The truth is the toll inflicted by the pandemic is much more acutely felt by some groups of people who are especially vulnerable and have been neglected by individual governments and the international community for a long time.

The pandemic has exposed the frailty of the health care and pandemic response systems of even the richest nations in the world.  The health, economic, and social impact of the pandemic will be many folds worse in countries that have been devastated by wars we have seen from other epidemics.

WHO and governments are advising us to stay home. But when your city is ravaged by conflict and you have been forced to flee your home, staying home is not an option. We are informed to maintain a healthy physical distance from other people to prevent infection by the virus. Yet how can refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and prisoners physically distance themselves in overcrowded camps and detention centers? We are also instructed to wash our hands with clean water for 20 seconds several times a day to protect ourselves from COVID-19. People living in areas of active warfare or refugee/IDP camps often lack access to water they are forced to carry water for miles. 40 % of the world ‘s population lacks adequate hand-washing facilities.

War has devastating consequences for populations affected by it and when accompanied by a pandemic the results will be cataclysmic. Health care facilities are often non-existent or barely functional in conflict zones. In recent armed conflicts, we have witnessed an escalation of violence against health care facilities and personnel exacerbating an already dire situation. Prolonged armed conflicts also erode the trust affected communities have their political leaders, making it difficult for governments to ensure that prevention and containment measures are complied with. We saw this play out in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea during the Ebola epidemic.

Armed conflicts also make it very difficult for humanitarian organizations to provide support to the civilian population to fight the pandemic. Humanitarian organizations are increasingly becoming targets of attacks by warring factions adding a layer of security concern that hamper their efforts to reach communities affected by conflict. Such attacks were part of the reason why Polio, Cholera, and Ebola escalated in Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in rates much higher than in other parts of the world. It is precisely for this reason that on 23 March 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire, calling for a halt to warfare. To date, the Secretary-General’s appeal has had no major impact on the front lines as military campaigns continue and thousands of people are still forced to abandon their homes.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) also known as the Law of Armed Conflict, a branch of public international law, provides crucial safeguards for victims of armed conflicts. Several IHL rules may be particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Under IHL, military medical personnel, units, and transports exclusively assigned to medical purposes must be respected and protected in all circumstances. In occupied territories, the occupying power must also ensure and maintain medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene. Also, IHL provides for the possibility of setting up hospital zones that may be dedicated to addressing the current crisis. IHL expressly prohibits attacking, destroying, removing, or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including drinking water installations and supplies. Moreover, in the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare civilian objects, including water supply networks and installations.  Under IHL, impartial humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have the right to offer their services. Once relief schemes have been agreed to by the parties concerned, the parties to the armed conflict and third States shall allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of the humanitarian relief subject to their right of control. Parties to armed conflicts have the obligation to collect and care for the wounded and sick, to respect and protect medical facilities and personnel, to meet basic needs of the population under a group’s control (including by allowing and facilitating humanitarian relief), to provide humane conditions of detention for all persons deprived of liberty, to provide for the basic needs of displaced persons, to allow access to education, and to respect the rules on the use of the emblem when marking medical or quarantine facilities.

However, seeking to raise awareness of these rules and ensure parties to conflicts abide by their obligations during active hostility or when a pandemic such as COVID-19 occurs is close to impossible. It’s very difficult to teach and implement IHL rules during war.

To alleviate the consequences of war at times like this, ICRC, recognized globally as “guardian of IHL”, disseminates information about IHL to authorities, armed forces, non-state armed groups, and the general public, and engages all relevant actors to enhance its implementation. One of the approaches used is the teaching of IHL in universities. In Ethiopia, the ICRC has worked to ensure that IHL is a compulsory course at all law schools. The ICRC also organizes the annual National IHL Moot Court Competition by collaborating with these universities.

Classroom lectures, however, are not enough. In addition to lectures given to students, a forum accessible beyond self-study is imperative. Such a forum will also create a platform for debate and discussion as well as awareness-raising to the university community and beyond. 

Discussions held between the ICRC and the Addis Ababa University Law School about how to provide a more practical IHL education, have led to the establishment of the first IHL Clinic in Ethiopia.

The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic is developed with the primary objective of providing students with the opportunity to take the theoretical lessons they learn in their classrooms and apply them to real-life situations. It will also enable students to develop and apply their skills in legal research, critical thinking, legal analysis, and problem-solving. Besides, the IHL Clinic will enable students to work pro bono on specific projects involving International Humanitarian Law that would allow them to gain valuable practical experience in the field of IHL.

Through the IHL Clinic, academicians and students will collaborate to conduct researches on topics within the variety of legal issues that are currently a challenge to the field such as the scope of application of IHL to specific situations, the legality of certain weapons and methods of warfare and the relationship of IHL to other branches of Public International Law.

The IHL Clinic will also give the chance for the inclusion of an African, particularly Ethiopian, literature to the study conducted on IHL globally. 

The IHL Clinic will also be a platform for the practical teaching and learning of IHL. Students will take an active role in the IHL Clinic through Role-Playing and other activities to learn how IHL matters are dealt with on the ground. Students will take the roles of Commanding Officers, Rebel group leaders, and ICRC Personnel, among others to gain firsthand lessons on how IHL is implemented.

To further its goal, the Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic is planning to publish an annual student journal for student researches. It also has a website where essays by students will be posted regularly. The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic also plans to organize Internal IHL Moot Courts and have a small library. The Clinic will also host radio programs on a variety of IHL subjects.

The Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic will work to ensure that all stakeholders learn and understand IHL rules. Knowledge of the rules and the consequences of the infringement will go a long way towards improving the implementation of IHL.

None of our activities would have been possible without the support of the ICRC delegation to Ethiopia and the Law School of Addis Ababa University. The members and administration of the Addis Ababa University International Clinic would like to express its gratitude for all their support.