Looking Back to Old Laws and Customs of War in Ethiopia: Establishing Groundwork for Further Research

Authors: Eyuel Zelalem and Michael Mengistu

Painting by:

Studying the history of existing laws helps in understanding its relationship with its subjects. When it comes to International Humanitarian Law (hereafter IHL), it is equally important to understand the laws and customs of war of the past to understand the contemporary normative rules of war. In this regard, there is a well-established research in the history of the laws and customs of warfare in Europe where the modern humanitarian laws emerged. Researches on traditional rules of warfare in some African States such as Somalia have also been carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, very little is known about old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. This blogpost explores the Ethiopian experience to motivate readers to conduct further research on the issue. It does so by first discussing the laws and customs of war that existed in Europe and other civilizations that flourished in various parts of the world such as the Pacific Islands and Africa. 

Laws and customs of war in Europe, the Pacific Islands and Africa before the 19th century

Due to the recurrence of war and violence in ancient times, long before the development of modern international legal and institutional framework for IHL, societies had to come up with limitations on the conduct of war which is often called “cultural regulation of violence”. These self-imposed codes of conducts/limitations of war originate from cultures of the war-making societies.[1] When it comes to Europe, these limitations, having their roots from the codes of chivalry and rules of Christendom, were existent since ancient times.[2] For example, Western scholars in European medieval and classical period were concerned with defining what a just war (Jus ad bellum) was and developing the principles of just war which are still applicable to this day.  

In general, having a look at the development of the laws and customs of war in Europe point to three principles that contributed to its growth. First, the principle that a belligerent should be justified in applying force which is necessary for the realization of the purpose of war.[3] Second, the principle of humanity at work which says that all such kinds and degrees of violence which go beyond overpowering the opponent should not be permitted to a belligerent person.[4] Third and lastly, the principle of chivalry which arose in the Middle Ages and introduced a certain amount of fairness in offence and defense, protection of non-combatants from pillages, and a certain mutual respect.[5]

The origins of these principles, however, are not confined to Europe but were also evident as the customs of war of other ancient civilizations. Ancient civilizations such as the pacific societies had imposed limitations on the conduct of war that resembled the modern principles of IHL.[6] For example, the Fijian society used weapons as a means of attack only when “this was deemed necessary upon provocation”.[7] Similarly and interestingly, African tribes that lived in the present days of Ghana, Somalia, and the Sahel region had traditional customs of war that were almost similar to the rules of IHL under the Geneva conventions.[8] Were there similar laws and customs of war in Ethiopia?

Laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century

Ethiopia is a party to the four Geneva Conventions on the laws and customs of war and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions. However, very little is known about the rules of war that used to exist in Ethiopia before the ratification of these Conventions in 1969. In order to understand the rules of war that existed in the country before the 20th century, we believe that researchers need to look at the history, governance systems, and laws – both customary and written – of the various civilizations that flourished in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the first document that should be studied to understand these laws and customs of war, we believe, is the Fetha Negest (Law of the Kings) since it served as the law of the courts of the Emperors of Ethiopia who had the final say in all matters including warfare and justice. 

The Fetha Negest says little on the rules of warfare. However, it tries to govern some aspects of war in a haphazard manner such as the treatment of captives of war. For example, it states: “At the beginning of creation, all men were free. But war and raids bring them to serve others, since the law of war is that conquest makes the conquered slaves of the conqueror”.[9] This reads as if the rules of war in the courts of Ethiopian emperors were opposed to the laws and customs of war that we have now. But can we reach conclusions about the old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia based on the Fetha Negest? Albeit the fact that the Fetha Negest incorporated such kinds of provisions, research show that customs of war that resembled contemporary normative rules of armed conflict existed in Ethiopia. For instance, Donald N. Levine wrote that during the Gondarine period (1632 – 1769 AD):

[The] Echage Bet [of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church] was reserved for the … monk who served as administrative head of the Church. […] The Echage Bet and the church compounds were considered sanctuaries and thus, in theory at least, were secure from plunderers. The Gondares and wealthy people from the country used these areas as a safety vault for their valuables.[10]

This customary understanding of the rules of war is in line with today’s customary international humanitarian law protection of religious buildings from military attack. In addition, according to Nega Ewnetie, some Emperors of Ethiopia even tried to reform the rule of the Fetha Negest that concerned captives of war in favor of humanitarian concerns. For instance, Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868 AD) tried to abolish the practice of selling captives of war into slavery.[11] He also mentions that Emperor Tewodros’s court decisions over war related cases considered aspects that we have under normative IHL rules.[12] Moreover, if we turn to Western Ethiopia, we will find that  the Nuer of the Gambella region observed a rule of war that protected villages which are “home” to Nuers’ god of war, Wiw, from forceful eviction even if the dwellers of the villages were defeated in battle.[13]  As a result, there may have been a mix of modern and old understandings of the laws of warfare, at least in some parts of Ethiopia, before the ratification of the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, further research on this issue is needed to bring a clear understanding about the history of laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. In conclusion, various research show that there were laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century. Some of these rules might not have been in line with today’s humanitarian law while other customs resembled contemporary armed conflict rules. However, thorough research has to be conducted in order to clearly understand the regulation of hostilities that used to exist in Ethiopia before the 20th century. 

[1] Michael Howard “Constraints on Warfare” in Michael Howard, George J. Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), p.2.

[2] Id. p.1.

[3] Lassa Francis Oppenheim, International Law: A Treatise: War and Neutrality, Volume II, (1912), p. 226.

[4] See ibid.

[5] Id, p. 227. See also Robert C. Stacy “The Age of Chivalry” in Michael Howard, George J.Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), pp. 34 – 36.

[6] International committee of the Red Cross, Under the Protection of the Palm: War of Dignity in the Pacific, (2009), p.9.

[7] Ibid p.14. 

[8] International committee of the Red Cross, African Values in War: A tool on Traditional Customs and IHL, <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/african-customs-tool-traditional-customs-and-ihl> last accessed on 28 July, 2021.

[9] A.L. Gardiner, “The Law of Slavery in Abyssinia”, Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, vol. 15 no. 4, (1933), p.196.

[10] Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, (1965), p. 41.

[11] Nega Ewnetie Mekonnen, “የዓለም አቀፍ የሰብአዊነት ሕግጋትና መርኆች በዳግማዊ አጼ ቴዎድሮስ የጦር ሜዳ ውሎዎችና ውሳኔዎች ውስጥየነበራቸው ቦታ”, Bahir Dar University Journal of Law, Vol. 6 No. 2, (2016), p.347.

[12] See ibid.

[13] Dereje Feyissa, “Customary Dispute Resolution Institutions: The Case of the Nuer of the Gambella Region” in Alula Pankhurst and Getachew Assefa “Grass-Roots Justice in Ethiopia”, <https://books.openedition.org/cfee/494>  last accessed on 27 July, 2021. 

Authors’ Bio

Eyuel Zelalem Abebe: Eyuel received his LL.B. from Addis Ababa University in 2018. He is now working as a Desk officer at the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations for Elections (CECOE).

Michael Mengistu Woldeyes: Michael received his LL.B. from Addis Ababa University in 2018. He is now studying for his master’s in human rights law at the University of Groningen. 

Webinar on The Role of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission in Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law

Esteemed followers of Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic,

The clinic has organized a webinar on the “Role of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission in Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law”. On this grand event, the President and First Vice-President of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission will be presenting. All interested are cordially invited to attend the program on the coming Friday afternoon at 4:30 PM Ethiopian time.

Kindly pre-register at https://forms.gle/mPLJcKD6seKxUgNg8

Online Speaker Series: International Humanitarian Law

Esteemed followers of the Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic,

Canadian Red Cross, in partnership with the University of Ottawa, invites you to its IHL NOW 2021 lecture series taking place from May 31-June 4th.

The session starts out with an introductory lecture to IHL by Professor Marco Sassòli, well known by many of you and world renowned in this field.

It is followed by a career panel on where speakers will present on challenges in IHL in relation to the conflict in Ethiopia; the conflict in Yemen; the protection of the environment during armed conflict, and conflict-related sexual violence.

On Thursday, June 3rd, 8:00 PM evening Ethiopian time Daniel Mekonnen a Human rights lawyer and Lea Mehari the Founder of Addis Ababa University International Humanitarian Law Clinic will be presenting on the Tigray crisis in light of IHL.

The link for the registration is found at

Kind regards,
IHL Clinic Director


by Bailey R. UlbrichtAllen S. Weiner | Apr 15, 2021Humanitarian Notification Systems. yemen-shelling-hospital-al-thawra-taiz-ICRCFacebookTwitterEmailLinkedInPrint


by Bailey R. UlbrichtAllen S. Weiner | Apr 15, 2021

Humanitarian Notification Systems. yemen-shelling-hospital-al-thawra-taiz-ICRC

Editor’s note: The following post is part of the Articles of War Symposium on Beth Van Schaack’s book, Imagining Justice for Syria. The symposium offers a platform for the contributing experts to carry the conversation on justice and accountability in Syria forward.

Despite the long-standing and widespread norm to the contrary, intentional attacks against medical facilities and their personnel in conflicts around the world have increased over the past decade. In Sudan, for example, the government army was accused of deliberately bombing hospitals—including one of the few remaining hospitals in rebel-held territory during the civil war—and schools. In Central African Republic, over 40 medical facilities operated by Médicines Sans Frontièrs (MSF) were intentionally attacked in 2017, and the attacks continued into the following year. Perhaps nowhere have attacks been more rampant than in Syria, where over the course of the ten-year conflict, at least 923 medical workers have been killed in at least 595 documented attacks on medical facilities. Such deliberate attacks contribute to the “humanitarian catastrophe” that Beth Van Schaack describes befalling Syria in her recent and powerful book, Imagining Justice for Syria.

These attacks pose major challenges to the operation of Humanitarian Notification Systems (HNSs), which were set up in various conflicts to share information with warring parties about the locations and movements of both humanitarian sites and workers. These systems are rooted in the assumption that the warring parties will use the information they receive to assist in complying with their duty not to attack humanitarians. We identify a number of challenges such deliberate targeting poses for HNSs—including issues concerning the systems’ purposes, list distribution, and vetting of humanitarian entities. Ultimately, we believe that improvement in the operation of HNSs is possible, but it will require collaborative engagement of humanitarians, international organizations, policymakers, and military leaders, as well as a willingness to re-examine long-held assumptions about how to safeguard humanitarians in times of war.

The Protection of Medical Facilities Under International Humanitarian Law

The protection of medical workers and their facilities is one of the oldest principles of the law of war. It dates back to the first Hague Regulations of 1899 and serves as a bedrock for modern international humanitarian law (IHL). Its purpose was then, as it is now, to protect field medics who care for the wounded and pose no immediate tactical threat. The immunity of medical workers also reflects the belief that medical care preserves dignity in death and suffering, regardless of which side a person fights on. Under modern law, it is a war crime to deliberately target or recklessly strike or attack medical workers and identifiable medical facilities in wartime.

Notwithstanding this clear-cut norm, as mentioned above, attacks on medical personnel and facilities have been rampant. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon decried the rising number of attacks in a U.N. Security Council meeting in May 2016. Speaking alongside him, former MSF President Joanne Liu fittingly referred to the situation as “an epidemic of attacks.”

There are different theories for why warring parties attack medical facilities and their personnel. Scholars have pointed to a broader wartime strategy of punishing civilians for their presumed political affiliations, dissuading medical workers and humanitarians from treating perceived enemies, ridding territory held by opposing forces of civilian infrastructure, or depriving civilians of the means to survive, thereby forcing them to flee or accept that party’s dominance.

Humanitarian Notification Systems  

To help warring parties avoid striking medical facilities and their personnel, humanitarian notification systems emerged from military deconfliction processes to notify warring parties of humanitarian “locations, activities, movements, and personnel.” With use dating back to at least the early 2000s, HNSs are now deployed in various conflicts to provide warring parties with necessary data of medical facilities and their personnel, often in the form of GPS coordinates. Participation in the system is voluntary on the part of both warring parties and humanitarians, however, and critically, the systems do not guarantee humanitarian protection.

There are varying models of HNSs administered by different entities. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), for example, runs centralized humanitarian notification systems in both Yemen and Syria, collecting fixed location and movement coordinates from humanitarian entities and disseminating them to some participating parties. In Yemen, recipients include the Saudi-led coalition; in Syria, they include the United States, Turkey, and Russia (though Russia recently backed out of the system). Importantly, OCHA does not verify the site submissions—including whether or not a site is indeed humanitarian and therefore protected under IHL. Instead, vetting a site’s status is the responsibility of warring parties, who are responsible for their own IHL compliance.

Beyond OCHA, several other entities also run HNSs. These include States, which rely on national humanitarian agencies to collect location data from humanitarian sites and disseminate it to the armed forces of that State, as well as often allied States operating in the area. Humanitarian groups such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and MSF also operate their own HNSs. In these ad-hoc systems, the ICRC and MSF work directly with warring groups in areas where they operate. The ICRC and MSF notify the warring groups of their humanitarian activities with a view towards ensuring protection. These systems often involve face-to-face meetings and can include non-State actors.

The Challenges Posed to Humanitarian Notification Systems

The increase in deliberate attacks against medical facilities over the past decade presents significant challenges to HNSs. HNSs are only as effective as the warring parties’ willingness to comply with IHL. Without compliance, HNSs are ineffective at best; at worst, they provide target lists for parties intent on attacking medical sites and personnel. This phenomenon demands a full understanding of the challenges posed by the rise in intentional attacks. We have identified a non-exhaustive list of these challenges below and grouped them into three categories: definition of purpose, list distribution, and humanitarian entity vetting.

Problem Area One: What Are the Purposes of an HNS?

The first set of challenges concerns whether the purpose of HNSs should change depending on a warring party’s (un)willingness to comply with IHL. In Syria, for example, the purpose of OCHA’s notification system as publicly stated is to “mitigate the risks, to the extent possible, of [humanitarian entities] being targeted / hit by an air strike.” But the persistence of strikes on humanitarian sites like hospitals—despite OCHA’s implementation of its HNS—highlights questions about the intended purpose. What functions should an HNS serve in the face of a warring party’s disregard for the law? And how could an HNS be redesigned to better advance those functions?

Protection of Humanitarian Entities?

A traditional view—reflected in OCHA’s system in Syria—is that HNS serves to enhance the protection of humanitarian entities. If this is the purpose, one possible change in HNS operation could be to exclude any party that intentionally targets medical facilities from access to the disseminated list. Or the exact location of humanitarian sites could be obscured in some way to protect them from attack. Other changes could involve using HNS information to discourage warring parties from attacking humanitarian sites by increasing the cost for such actions; for example, HNS information could be used to increase diplomatic pressure or exert public condemnation (“naming and shaming”).


Yet if warring factions repeatedly intentionally target humanitarian entities, it is far from clear how HNS can possibly hope to achieve the goal of protection, given that the legal obligation lies with the parties themselves. In such circumstances, HNS could prioritize accountability rather than protection as its purpose. Enhancing accountability would focus on data tracking and storage. This includes, for example, systematic tracking and storage of confirmation that warring parties received the coordinate lists of protected locations. Such evidence could be used to counter potential claims that a given attack was inadvertent. Admittedly, it is not clear what accountability would actually mean in this context of HNS. One view of accountability contemplates formal judicial proceedings, which would take place months, if not years, after the strikes occurred. Another view is that accountability could happen in real time in the form of naming and shaming.

We must also consider possible implications for humanitarian neutrality, a key principle requiring humanitarians to avoid favoring any side in an armed conflict. If an HNS were to be used to attribute a strike to a specific party, would this undermine the neutrality of the organization administering the list? Would humanitarian organizations be hesitant to participate in a notification system that could be used in a manner that calls out warring parties’ responsibility for IHL violations? And would warring parties refuse to participate in an HNS if they feared that it would be used in this way?

Problem Area Two: Who Gets the List?

The second set of challenges involves the distribution of protected location lists to warring parties if some are suspected of violations. Regardless of the purpose of an HNS, distribution to a party that subsequently intentionally targets hospitals can undermine the system’s functionality. Such distribution could sow distrust among humanitarians in the system. In worst case scenarios, it may lead to humanitarians opting out of the system altogether.

The first issue within this set of challenges is how non-compliance is defined. Is it only when a party commits intentional strikes against humanitarian entities? And if so, how would the intention of a warring party be determined? Must multiple strikes occur before a warring party is considered “non-compliant”? Could a party gain re-entry? These parameters would need to be worked out, likely by the list administrator, its participants, and/or an international body that could set guidelines for HNSs.

A closely connected issue is who decides whether a party is non-compliant. One option would entail leaving it in the hands of the list-controller, the entity that collects and disseminates the information. However, this option could impinge the list controller’s perceived or actual neutrality. This encroachment on neutrality—perceived or otherwise—risks sowing distrust among participants, causing some to decline participation. Instead, one could envision an independent review body in which a diverse set of experts receive evidence of strikes and make determinations of non-compliance. Another option would be to empower the humanitarians to make this decision themselves. If they receive reports that a particular entity is targeting hospitals, they could opt out of sending their coordinates to that specific entity. Perceived and actual biases, information access, and scope of mandates are relevant concerns with respect to all of these options.

A final, broader issue under this set of challenges connects back to the first problem area. If non-compliant members are removed from the system, does that contradict the very purpose of HNS?

Problem Area Three: Should Sites Be Vetted?

Under IHL, a humanitarian site is no longer protected when it is used to commit an act harmful to an enemy—such as serving as a weapons storage facility or a hideout for an armed group. Assertions that a humanitarian site is being used for hostile purposes is often presented as justification for attacks against it. Both Russia and Syria, for instance, have invoked this reasoning numerous times in response to allegations of war crimes.

To prevent misuse of humanitarian sites, and to refute false claims of such misuse, should list administrators vet humanitarian entities before including them in a notification system? Doing so could help refute false allegations, but it raises concerns because legal responsibility for IHL compliance—including confirmation a purportedly humanitarian entity is a legitimate target—is the responsibility of warring parties, not list administrators. Those involved in administering the lists, such as OCHA, might also credibly contend that they lack the resources and intelligence tools that would enable them to vet proposed humanitarian sites, much less conduct continual re-assessment as conditions on the battlefield change.

There are also concerns about the decision-making process. As with the issues raised in the previous problem area, what standards would be used to vet humanitarian entities? Who would decide whether or not an entity is in compliance? How frequently must these determinations be made, given the near-constant changing nature of conflict settings?

Next Steps: Addressing These Challenges

These challenges are serious but not insoluble. Addressing them will require creative, collaborative thinking, and willingness to rethink the design of HNS processes in situations where warring parties do not comply with IHL. Making progress will require bringing together stakeholders from different HNSs—including humanitarians, international organizations, policymakers, and military leaders—whose varying perspectives and interests can present solutions, along with buy-in to those solutions.

There is a cure to the epidemic of intentional attacks against healthcare facilities. But it will require collaboration and a willingness to question long-held assumptions about how to safeguard humanitarians in times of war.


Allen S. Weiner is Senior Lecturer in Law and Director of the Program in International and Comparative Law at Stanford Law School and serves as Director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.

Bailey Ulbricht is a second-year law student at Stanford Law School, where she focuses on international humanitarian law, human rights law, and U.S. foreign policy.


Other Posts in the Symposium

See also Beth Van Schaack’s book, Imagining Justice for Syria and her earlier Articles of War post with the same title.SUBSCRIBESearch for:RELATED POSTS

Strengthening Atrocity Cases with Digital Open Source Investigations

by Alexa KoenigLindsay Freeman

April 1, 2021

Battlefield Detention, Counterterrorism, and Future Conflicts

by Dan E. Stigall

March 24, 2021

Beth Van Schaack’s Imagining Justice for Syria

by Winston Williams

March 17, 2021​

Imagining Justice for Syria

by Beth Van Schaack

August 25, 2020FacebookTwitterEmailLinkedInPrint


United States Military Academy 
646 Swift Road
West Point, NY 10996


Articles of War Disclaimer

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. 

Articles of War is a forum for professionals to share opinions and cultivate ideas. Articles of War does not screen articles to fit a particular editorial agenda, nor endorse or advocate material that is published.

west point logo



The right to health in armed conflict

Author: Yoseph Genene

photo credit: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/enhancing-protection-armed-conflict-throughdomestic-law-and-policy-overview-report

The dramatic scene that went viral on the media in 2019, as some compared it with ‘Like Moses parting the Red Sea’, showing thousands of  demonstrators protesting a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong; letting an ambulance passing through a sea of people as the crowd parts way for the medical emergency. This video for sure will restore your faith in humanity. Even though IHL is to be applied during an armed conflict, humanity is the common denominator here. Because in IHL, the ultimate purpose is to protect the victims of armed conflicts and regulate hostilities based on a balance between military necessity and humanity.

The right to health was first articulated in the WHO Constitution (1946) which states that: “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…”. The preamble of the Constitution defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

The 1948 UDHR article 25 mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. In 1966, years after passage of the UDHR, the UN proposed another treaty that includes health care: the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural and Rights (CESCR). Article 12 of the CESCR further clarified “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” “Health” in this context is understood as not just the right to be healthy and have health care, but as a right to control one’s own body, including reproduction. Article 12 goes on to require that “states must protect this right by ensuring that everyone within their jurisdiction has access to the underlying determinants of health, such as clean water, sanitation, food, nutrition, and housing, and through a comprehensive system of health care, which is available to everyone without discrimination, and economically accessible to all.” The right to health framework is set forth in general comment No. 14 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which interprets the right to health and mandates States to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health of everyone, including persons affected by and/or involved in conflicts.

Armed conflict is one of the circumstances in which health care delivery is most needed. Despite this fact, attacks on and interference with health care services, providers, facilities, transports, and patients in situations of armed conflict pose huge challenges to health care delivery.

In the world`s youngest nation South Sudan, not only hundreds of thousands of people have been effectively denied lifesaving assistance; but also, patients murdered in their beds in the town of Malakal, upper Nile state. A hospital in Leer, Unity state, was “thoroughly looted, burned and vandalized”. The MSF compound in Bentiu, capital of Unity state was also looted amid heavy fighting.

In the neighbor Ethiopia, in the recent situation in Tigray region, health facilities have been looted, vandalized, and destroyed in a deliberate and widespread attack on health care, ambulances have been seized by armed groups, and many health facilities have few or no remaining staff. Some have fled in fear; others no longer come to work because they have not been paid in months.

In Libya, on 18 February 2018, a woman in labor and her unborn child died on their way to the Wehda hospital, after armed men affiliated with the Libyan National Army at the Kirsa checkpoint, west of Derna, delayed their passage. Such acts are in breach of the obligation of parties to the conflict under IHL to ensure that adequate medical care is provided to the wounded and sick as far as practicable and with the least possible delay.

Also in Libya, in 2011 uprising discriminatory practices were frequently employed. Cars were stopped to prevent patients belonging to opposing ethnic groups reaching hospitals. IHL focuses on impartiality in responding to individuals in immediate need of care rather than on the structure and availability of services. IHL would forbid turning away a woman in labor based on her ethnic or political affiliation, it does not address entrenched practices that limit the availability, accessibility, and quality of facilities and services to members of her group and may make it dangerous for her to seek care. International Human Rights Law (IHRL) can assist in powerfully addressing these infringements.

The application of the general International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in an armed conflict is no more a debate. As settled by the ICJ, it will play a vital role protecting the right to health of individuals by complementing IHL which is the special law which applies in an armed conflict.

IHL has provided a framework for assuring protection and respect for medical personnel, medical facilities, and ambulances, as well as the wounded and sick, in IAC and NIAC.

The right to health has been interpreted as consisting of key entitlements and state responsibilities, including the interrelated and essential elements of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of health care services, facilities, and goods.

Only in recent years has the importance of the right to health in war and other situations of political violence begun to develop. The first breakthrough likely came in a 2013 report by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Anand Grover. The report recognized that insecurity often limited states’ ability to ensure the resources needed to maintain access to health but explained that the requirement of progressive realization remained in place, requiring “concrete steps towards the full realization of the right to health to all, without discrimination and regardless of the status of persons as combatants or civilians.” His report was soon followed by another report by the OHCHR on economic, social and cultural rights in armed conflict, with a specific focus on the rights to health and to education. In which requires states to pay particular attention to persons rendered vulnerable by conflict, including internally displaced, women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities, among others. Further, to address marginalization arising from social, political and economic exclusion and discrimination.   


IHL remains a critically important set of rules through which to address obligations with respect to health in armed conflict, with IHRL acting as a powerful complement to it. In circumstances where no armed conflict exists, but where health workers, facilities, patients, and ambulances are subject to threats, attacks, and other forms of interference and denial, IHRL fills an important gap.

As IHRL has been contributing to ensure the interests and needs of the powerless and the vulnerable, also in time of  armed conflict and in time where there`s a debate whether the situation is an armed conflict or law enforcement,  the application of IHRL will address the powerlessness experienced by those seeking care and those trying to provide it, across all conflict settings.

Yoseph Genene is an undergraduate student at the School of Law, College of Law and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University. He can be reached through the email address geneneyoseph@gmail.com or twitter @geneneyoseph

Webinar Series on Semi colonialism

Centre for International Legal Studies Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) and Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic have co-organized a Webinar series entitled “Semi-colonialism and International law” for Spring 2021. The webinar series features distinguished scholars from different continents. The topic of each webinar, presenters, moderators, and time schedule is provided below.

The registration link is available at https://bit.ly/3rfLxBx

THU,11 MARCH 2021, 7:30 PM-8:30 PM Topic: Semi-colonialism in Siam
Universty of Wisconsin-Madison
Moderator: Prabhakar Singh
Jindal Global Law School

THU, 18 MARCH 2021 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM Topic: From Semi-Colonial Ambiguity to Nationalist Assertion in Twentieth-Century China
Presenter: XIN FAN
State University of New York Fredonia
Moderator: Prabhakar Singh
Jindal Global Law School

THU, 08 APRIL 2021 7:30 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM Topic: Hawaiian kingdom, the United States and International Law
University of Hawaii
Moderator: Ajita Sharma
Jindal Global Law School

THU, 15 APRIL 2021 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM Topic: Semi-colonialism in Indochina: A longue Duree History: A Langue puree History
Harvard University
Moderator:Prabhakar Singh
Jindal Global Law School

MON, 26 APRIL 2021
6:OO PM – 7:OO PM

Topic: Semi-colonialism in Ethiopia
Melbourne Law School

Moderator: Lea Mehari Redae
Addis Ababa University

THU, 06 MAY 2021 6:00 PM -7:00 PM Topic: Semi-colonialism in Ethiopia
Oscar Tang Chair of East Asian Studies, Duke University

Moderator: Prabhakar Singh
Jindal Global Law School

Prabhakar Singh and AGRA Sharma- Jindal Global Law School
Lea Mehari Redae- Addis Ababa University

Seminar on respecting and protecting health care during conflict/violence

Organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Addis Ababa University, School of Law

March 10, 2021, Addis Ababa

Background and rationale

Armed conflict and internal disturbances – such as violent protests and riots – cause injuries among those directly participating and those who get caught in the way. Serious injuries require medical attention, yet it is precisely at these moments of greatest need that health-care services are most vulnerable to disruption, interference and attack. Violence, both actual and threatened, hugely impacts upon accessibility of health services, at times threatening the lives of those who need the services most. Violence against or in the vicinity of medical facilities may also cause health personnel to flee, leaving a big void in the much-needed health care services- affecting not just those who are wounded in the fighting but also those that suffer from chronic illnesses that require regular care and follow-up. It may damage health facilities or vehicles, as well as hamper vital preventive health care programmes such as vaccination campaigns, resulting in serious health implications in the long-run. The fight to eradicate polio, for example, has faced setbacks in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the safety of vaccination teams is difficult to assure. The health care system shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack.

Against the backdrop of the concerning humanitarian issue of violence against health-care and the urgent need for a continued focus on the matter, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement launched in 2011 the Health Care in Danger (HCiD) Initiative. The initiative aims at addressing the issue of violence against patients, health workers, facilities and vehicles, thus ensuring safe access to and delivery of health care in armed conflict and other emergencies. The initiative also underscores that all reasonable measures should be taken to ensure safe and prompt access to health care for the wounded and sick, in times of armed conflict or other emergencies, in accordance with the applicable legal frameworks, where relevant and appropriate, to adopt and effectively implement the required domestic measures, including legislative, regulatory and practical ones, to ensure respect for their international legal obligations pertaining to the protection of the wounded and sick and health-care personnel, facilities, and medical transports, and the protection and use of the distinctive emblems by authorized medical personnel, facilities and transports.


The participants will be drawn from lecturers of IHL and related fields of law such as human rights, international criminal law, and if feasible, from the medical and public health schools. Senior students who are engaged in the activities of the IHL clinic and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society will also participate in the seminar. The total number of participants is expected to be around 20.

Date/Venue: The seminar will be conducted on the 10th of March 2021 at Addis Ababa University, Law school building, room 8.

Expected Outcomes: After the seminar, it is expected that participants will have a very good grasp of the challenges surrounding respect and protection of health care globally (and, to a limited extent, in Ethiopia). The seminar will also hopefully serve as a stepping-stone for the envisioned collaboration with the IHL clinic of Addis Ababa University, to conduct an HCiD legal and administrative set-up review for Ethiopia. Participants will also be provided with selected resources that can serve as references for those interested in pursuing the topic further.

Resources for the Workshop

Main reference document: “Protecting Health Care: Key Recommendations”, available here.

additional reading (available for download in the Resource Center at www.healthcareindanger.org):

“The implementation of rules protecting the provision of health care in armed conflicts and other emergencies: a guidance tool”

“The responsibilities of health-care personnel working in armed conflict and other emergencies”

Contact Persons:

  • Raji Gezahegn, Legal adviser
  • Eyerusalem Teshome, Head of Prevention
  • Yosalem Negus, Director AAU IHL Clinc,ihlclinicaau@gmail.com


9:00- 9:30  Opening remarks/Welcome speech       Video: “One of the first victims of war is the health-care system”Abdi Jibril (Ph.D.), Head of Law School, Addis Ababa University   International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
9:30-10:00Challenges facing the healthcare system amid conflicts: a snapshotAna Elisa M. Barbar  Adviser to the Health Unit, Health Care in Danger Initiative, ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)  
10:00-11:00The Health care in Danger Initiative of the RCRC Movement: What is it and the rationaleAna Elisa M. Barbar 

11:00-11:30Health break😊
11:30- 12:30International legal frameworks for the protection of health care    Raji Gezahegn, Legal adviser, ICRC
12:30- 13:00Protection of Red Cross Emblem under Ethiopian LawTewodros Alamerew, Head of Legal Services, Ethiopia Red Cross Society (ERCS)
13:00-13:30Wrap up and next stepsEyerusalem Teshome, Head of Prevention, ICRC

The Ethio-Sudanese Border Conflict in the Disputed ‘Al-Fashqa’ Territory: What are the International Law Issues at Stake?

By: Marishet Mohammed Hamza and Fikire Tinsae Birhane


Ethiopia and Sudan share a long border that stretches over 1,600 Kms. While large part of the border remains un-demarcated, it is mostly undisputed. There are, however, pockets of disputed lands, including ‘Al-Fashqa’, which lies in the northern tip of the shared boundary. According to Sudan, Al-Fashqa was demarcated as part of its territory under the 1902 treaty between Ethiopia and colonial Britain, representing Sudan. For long, it is Ethiopian farmers that reside and farm in Al-Fashqa. Sudan explains the reason for this is the 1978 agreement in which it has agreed to leave the soft border open to Ethiopian farmers who would operate under Sudanese law and pay taxes to it, while Ethiopia recognizes Sudan’s sovereignty over the land. Ethiopia rejects such claims and has been asserting its full sovereignty instead.

Recently, following accusations of attacks in Al-Fashqa against Sudanese civilians by armed militiamen(which Sudan alleged were supported by Ethiopia), Sudan’s military crossed into the disputed territory, attacked the villages and took control of a large part of the territory. The attacks, according to Ethiopia, took place since the first week of November 2020. Besides, there are also reports indicating military confrontations between the defence forces of the two countries.

Sudan has confirmed it has ‘(re)taken control of most of Sudanese territory in the disputed border area which was under the Ethiopian farmers’. However, Ethiopia persistently accuses Sudan of intruding into, and carrying out organized attacks and forcefully taking control of its land. Sudan, on its part, accuses Ethiopia of supporting continued attacks by local militiamen and, also, violation of its airspace by an Ethiopian fighter-jet. Ethiopia rejects these claims too. The tensions have further escalated and, on 15 February 2021, Sudanese foreign ministry has accused Ethiopian forces of trespassing into Sudanese land ‘in an act of aggression’. Similarly, the Ethiopian foreign ministry condemned Sudan for its continued provocative behaviour, violation of boundary agreements, and called upon it to ‘reverse [its] aggression’.

Is the Use of Force by Sudan (un)lawful?

It is an established principle of international law that States shall refrain from the threat or use of force in their international relations ‘against the territorial integrity or political independence’ of other States(UN Charter, Article 2(4)). The only exception for this is the right to self-defence to repel an armed attack(UN Charter, Article 51). Thus, unless justified under the exception, the threat or use of force might constitute an armed attack, and violation of the UN Charter. Despite this proscription, States might still resort to the use of force; in which case a situation of armed conflict occurs and the propriety of resorting to force could become an international law issue.

The prohibition under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter equally applies to disputed territories (C. Yiallourides et al, 2018, p.). The obligation under Article 2(4) supplements Article 2(3) of the Charter, which requires States to settle their disputes through peaceful means. These obligations were reaffirmed in the 1970 UN General Assembly Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, which provides that States have a duty ‘to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate the existing international boundaries of another State or as a means of solving international disputes, including territorial disputes and problems concerning frontiers of States’ (Principle 1). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has observed that the adoption by the majority of States of the Declaration ‘affords an indication of their opinio juris as to customary international law on the question’ (Nicaragua judgement, para.191). Accordingly, ‘under the UN Charter and customary international law, the resort to force is never an acceptable means of altering an existing territorial status quo, including in situations of disputed territories’ (C. Yiallourides et al: p. 90).

Turning to our case, Sudan has officially acknowledged its attacks in the disputed Al-Fashqa area and forcefully retaking the disputed territory. Manifestly, these acts constitute use of force as contemplated under international law. As the attacks have occurred against a territory which Ethiopia categorically and in strongest terms claims as part of its sovereign territory, arguably, the Sudanese acts could be regarded as attacks directed against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.

Sudan has not yet justified its attacks and the forceful control of part of the disputed land under the self-defence exception. This could have invited assessment of whether its armed attack might be in tune with the UN Charter. Though there has not been such a claim, one should examine whether the alleged attacks (against Sudanese civilians and military) within the disputed land by the local (Ethiopian) militiamen could be regarded as an armed attack to which Sudan could invoke the right to self-defence.

The ICJ, in its Nicaragua judgement (para.195) has made it clear that the concept of ‘armed attack’ in the context of the right to self-defence is limited to ‘actions by states’. Regarding an armed attack by a non-state armed group (such as the local militiamen), it will constitute an armed attack if it could be proven that a State has ‘financed, armed and trained the armed group’ and sends it over a border to engage in use of force against another State (ibid). Similarly, International Law Commission’s (ILC) draft articles on responsibility of states for internationally wrongful acts provides for situations where a certain conduct can be attributed to a State, and thereby entail its international responsibility. As described above, Sudan acknowledged waging military attacks against the Ethiopian militiamen in Al-Fashqa and forcefully retaking most of the villages in the disputed territory. Accordingly, there is no question that this conduct is attributable to Sudan (Article 4, ILC Draft Articles).

However, even if Sudan’s claim that the (Ethiopian) militiamen had attacked Sudanese civilians prior to the Sudanese military attacks in the Al-Fashqa area is true, there still is a question whether the militiamen’s conduct can be attributed to Ethiopia. The relevant provision in the ILC draft articles provides that ‘the conduct of a person or group of persons shall be considered an act of a State under international law if the person or group of persons is in fact acting on the instructions of, or under the direction or control of, that State in carrying out the conduct’ (id, Art 8).

In addition, according to the ICJ, not all incidents by armed forces (including non-state armed groups) constitute armed attacks that entitle States to use counter-force in self-defence; rather, it has to be a ‘grave form of the use of force as distinguished from other less grave forms’ (Nicaragua judgement, para.191). Accordingly, even if it were possible to attribute the local militiamen’s attack to Ethiopia, for Sudan to invoke the right to self-defence, it has to be proven that the attacks were a ‘grave form of the use of force’. On top of that, as the incidents happened in a disputed territory, it has to also be established that the alleged militiamen attacks occurred against Sudan’s sovereign territory. The mere allegation that Ethiopian-militiamen had attacked Sudanese civilians may not suffice to consider the events as an armed attack against Sudan as a State.

In sum, ‘forcible means cannot be used to gain control over a disputed territory or to alter in any way the existing factual situation on the ground in the attacking State’s favour. Moreover, force cannot be used to correct retroactively situations of perceived past injustice on grounds of self-defence’ (C. Yiallourides et al: pp. 90-91). A State cannot also legitimately invoke a right of self-defence to gain control over a disputed area which is under the de facto control and administration of another State, on the basis of rectifying a situation of unlawful possession or generally correcting a ‘past injustice’ (C. Yiallourides et al: p. 77).

Is there an International Armed Conflict?

While resorting to war(armed attacks) in violation of the UN Charter prohibition on the use of force is a jus ad bellum question, the issue of whether there actually exists an international armed conflict (IAC) is a jus in bello question, which pertains to the applicable international humanitarian law (IHL) rules.

Both Ethiopia and Sudan are state parties to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949(GCs) and their two additional protocols of 1977. According to Common Article 2 to the GCs, the Conventions apply to ‘all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, … [and] to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance’. Additional Protocol I(API) applies to similar situations(Article 1(3)). Generally, according to IHL, two situations trigger an IAC: an armed conflict between two or more States (a declaration of war may also trigger the applicability (M. Sassòli, 2019, p.169)) and occupation of the territory of another State.

According to Sassòli, the existence of an IAC is a question of fact that exists ‘if someone attributable to a State commits acts of violence against persons or objects representing another State’ (ibid). To distinguish from acts which are unintentional or done mistakenly/in error, it is suggested that the act must be approved by the ‘highest authorities of the State’ (ibid).

Based on the above assessment, the Sudanese military’s organized armed attack in Al-Fashqa could be taken as a sufficient fact to prove the existence of an IAC between the two countries. Reports of military confrontation between the defence forces of the two countries further corroborate this.

Status of Al-Fashqa, is it an Occupied Territory?

While Sudan claims retaking control of a disputed territory, Ethiopia accuses Sudan of ‘occupying’ its land. Under the Hague Regulations (Article 42), ‘a territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army’. Conventionally, there are three fundamental criteria that will be used to establish whether a situation constitutes an occupation: effective control by one State of part or whole of the territory of another State, loss of effective control by the invaded State, and lack of consent by the State that lost control over territory. (M. Sassòli, 2019, pp.303-305).

Thus, control over territory constitutes an occupation, and obligations of an occupying force follows, where a State invades and took control of a territory that belongs to another State. In our case, Sudan claims it has retaken control of its own territory. Indeed, under the law of occupation, if a State ‘liberates its own territory that was previously occupied’ by an adversary and regains control, it would not constitute an occupation (ibid, p.313). Nonetheless, where sovereignty over a territory is disputed, the claim of retaking control over territory (like Sudan’s claim over Al-Fashqa) will not exclude the applicability of the law of occupation (ibid). In other words, though a State controls a territory it considers to be its own, it would still constitute an occupation, if sovereignty is contested by the adversary (E. Benvenisti, 2019, p.59; A. Roberts, 1984, 55 BYBIL 249, p.280).

In light of Ethiopia’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory, one could easily see that sovereignty over Al-Fashqa remains a disputed one, and, in that case, it is reasonable to conclude that Al-Fashqa can be considered an occupied territory to which IHL of occupation would be applicable.


In light of the UN Charter prohibition on the use of force, which equally applies to disputed territories like Al-Fashqa, Sudan’s forceful entry into Al-Fashqa and (re)taking control of territories that were under the de facto control and administration of Ethiopia makes its act unlawful under international law. Also, the undisputed armed attacks in Al-Fashqa and alleged military confrontation between the defence forces of the two countries along with the situation of occupation of Al-Fashqa establish existence of an IAC between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Authors Bio

1.Marishet Mohammed Hamza

PhD Student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genève

Email: marishetm@yahoo.com/ marishet.mohammed@graduateinstitute.ch

2. Fikire Tinsae Birhane

PhD Student at the Institute of International and Comparative Law in Africa, University of Pretoria;

Lecturer of Laws and Human Rights, School of Law, Hawassa University.

Email: ftinsae@gmail.com/ fikire.birhane@graduateinstitute.ch


Ensuring Respect for IHL by Kenya and Uganda in South Sudan

By:- Dr Kenneth Wyne Mutuma

Despite its domestication of all the major IHL treaties, South Sudan has, for some time now, been embroiled in conflict. First, it was involved in a Civil War to secede from Sudan and later on, there was the war between the government and different armed groups. These wars have resulted in gross human rights violations committed by the government as well as the armed groups. The warring parties in South Sudan have demonstrated an abrogation of the IHL obligations and thus, there is a pressing need to examine how the legal obligations of State Parties to IHL treaties can be better respected and enforced. CA1 is a distinct mechanism through which Kenya and Uganda can help in ensuring respect for IHL obligations by South Sudan. CA1 imposes positive obligations on State Parties mandating them to take some action to stop the violations of IHL. In this way, it uniquely places a duty, and not simply a right, to take action to ensure respect for IHL.

Kenya, Uganda and the Conflict in South Sudan

Both Kenya and Uganda are State Parties to the IHL treaties, just like South Sudan. They have ratified the Geneva Conventions and are accordingly bound by the obligations therein. The two have also enacted laws to punish certain international crimes; Kenya with its International Crimes Act 2008, and Uganda with its International Crimes Act 2010. The geographical position of Kenya and Uganda has significantly contributed to their successful strong economic relations with South Sudan. Both countries are major import partners for South Sudan.

On its part, Kenya has professed neutrality in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. Nonetheless, Kenya has built close political and economic ties with the government of South Sudan; an interaction that may give rise to obligations incumbent on Third States, including those under CA1. On the other hand, Uganda has in the past participated as a party to the conflict in South Sudan by providing military support and facilitating the supply of military arms and equipment. The involvement of Uganda in the conflict gives it leverage in terms of the influence it can bring to bear the South Sudan government for purposes of CA1.  The unique relationship as a partner to a conflict provides an opportunity for Uganda to encourage respect for IHL by South Sudan.

In line with their obligations under CA1, Kenya and Uganda may explore some of the measures discussed below:

  1. Preventing South Sudanese From Profiting From IHL Violations

Kenya and Uganda have been strategic partners with South Sudan in economic relations owing to their geographical proximity. Consequently, Kenya and Uganda have been conduits of majority of the imports into South Sudan. These imports are mainly commercial goods, including arms and military hardware. Kenya has further been economically relating with South Sudan through its banking system and real estate sector. Since it has the most developed financial sector in the region, Kenya’s banking system serves as a center and conduit for the region’s financial transactions. Most of the South Sudan financial transactions are conducted through Kenyan owned banks. It has been alleged that South Sudan leaders use Kenyan banks for alleged illicit financial transactions. Moreover, the profitable real estate sector in Kenya has become convenient for South Sudan leaders trying to launder their proceeds of illicit wealth acquired during the armed conflict. The intimate socio-economic and political interaction between Kenyan, Ugandan and South Sudanese leaders provide ample leverage for employing forms of punitive trade measures in order to pressure South Sudan to comply with the obligations of IHL.For instance, Kenya can apply such pressure by freezing the funds and property that South Sudanese leaders have invested through Kenya’s banking and real estate industry.

  • Peace Building

Kenya and Uganda can fulfill their duty under CA1 by exerting meaningful diplomatic pressure upon the government of South Sudan. Given Kenya’s neutrality and past involvement as a mediator and peacebuilder, there is a plausible chance for exerting pressure upon the warring factions in South Sudan in line with their responsibilities to respect IHL. Uganda’s past participation as party to the conflict elevates its position to engage in discreet communication urging the South Sudanese government forces to refrain from IHL violations. The IHL mechanisms adopted by regional bodies like the East Africa Commission (EAC) and international organizations like the International Fact Finding Commission (IFFC) may also be embraced by Kenya and Uganda.

  • Preventing and Punishing War Crimes

The War Crimes in South Sudan amount to a contravention of jus cogens and thus, they attract concern from all States. Based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, Kenya and Uganda have the right to exercise jurisdiction over violations committed by individuals linked to the South Sudanese government. In as much as the victims are not their nationals, Kenya and Uganda have a legal interest in ensuring the protection of their rights. Pursuant to their duty under CA1, Kenya and Uganda ought to take measures to prevent and punish the war crimes. In doing so, impartiality must be guaranteed. The respective judiciary should be independent while adjudicating over the violations of IHL in South Sudan. Failure to do so would undermine the prerequisite for neutrality embedded in the rule of law and the central premise that international justice is aimed at seeking justice for the whole international community. The punishment of the South Sudanese perpetrators will act as a deterrent to future violations of IHL because it will portray the ideal of law with “teeth”.

  • Preventing Trade in Arms

Both Kenya and Uganda have served as channels for arms and ammunition flowing into South Sudan. Such support may arguably establish the necessary attributable nexus with IHL violations. Kenya and Uganda may therefore be indirectly responsible for the atrocities committed by the parties and can be construed as rendering aid to a party to a conflict. In this regard, the duty under CA1 is significant because it imposes positive obligations upon States like Kenya and Uganda. The provisions demand that Kenya and Uganda should undertake actions that ensure IHL is respected by the South Sudanese government and warring factions.

From the foregoing, it can be concluded that in as much as there is an adequate legal framework for IHL, there has still been numerous atrocities and violations as evidenced by South Sudan. Therefore, Third States like Kenya and Uganda play a significant role towards encouraging and promoting respect for IHL rules by South Sudan. The political and economic capacity and influence of Kenya and Uganda over South Sudan can help in achieving this. CA1 foresees a responsibility incumbent upon each State to take measures aimed at increasing the respect of IHL by warring parties.

Dr. Mutuma is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Law. Dr Mutuma holds a
PhD and LL.M degree from the University of Cape Town and an LL.B from the University of
Liverpool. He is also a partner at law firm in Nairobi and possesses 21 years’ experience in the
practice of law.

Kidnapping of Civilian Girls and Women by Non-State Armed Groups

Author: Helina Stiphanos

Image source: https://str8talkmagazine.com/index.php/2020/06/15/government-says-several-parties-involved-in-abduction-of-university-students/

About a year ago, 18 Amhara students of Dembi Dolo University were fleeing from the unrest in their University. While they were on their way to Gambela, the students were kidnapped in Wollega, Oromia region. One of them managed to escape and gave a testimony of the incident to the news outlet Addis Standard. The rest, most of whom are female, have disappeared without a trace. They have not been heard of since. On the anniversary of their disappearance, Helina discusses if kidnapping of civilian girls and women can be a violation of International Humanitarian Law.

Key Words: Kidnapping, Non-International Armed Conflicts, Non-State Armed Groups, Girls, Women.

Kidnapping of Civilian Girls and Women by Non-State Armed Groups

#BringBackOurGirls, a social media campaign started in Nigeria, was a result of an outrageous kidnapping of 276 girls from their school in Chibok. The girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, a non-state armed group (NSAG), as a retaliation to the ‘nabbing’ of the wives and children of the group’s members by Nigerian authorities. This was, however, just the first step to the evolution of the group’s tactics towards instrumental use of girls and women in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs).[1] Shortly after the kidnapping in April 2014, a middle-aged woman became the first female bomber for the group. Since then, even girls as young as 7 years old have been used as suicide bombers. A 2018 UNICEF press release states that more than 1,000 children have been kidnapped by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria between 2013 and 2017. Between January and August 2017, the use of children as ‘human bombs’ intensified with 83 children, 55 of whom were girls, having been used as such. Unfortunately, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls was neither the first nor the last of such acts, by Boko Haram and/or other NSAGs.

Kidnapping, IHLs Violation?

The regulation of NIACs relies on extremely limited legal instruments – Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II[2] (APII) – and a strong Customary International Humanitarian Law contribution. Yet, none have defined kidnapping. Even the jurisprudence of multiple international courts and tribunals have disregarded this. In this blog post, kidnapping is defined as the forcible removal of civilian girls and women from their environment by NSAGs.

IHLs apply once a situation reaches an armed conflict which arises when elements of opposing armed forces are engaged in an attack.[3] Attacks are acts of violence against the adversary whether in offence or defence.[4] It is the use of armed forces to carry out a military operation at the beginning or during the course of armed conflict, a definition applicable in NIACs too.[5] Thus, kidnappings can constitute attacks as long as they are carried out by a party to an armed conflict in furtherance of a military operation or as one by itself, at the beginning or during the course of armed conflicts.

The applicability of IHLs to NSAGs is widely accepted.[6] Hence, they are required to respect the rights of civilians to be protected from being objects of attack.[7] The distinction of civilians and combatants/members of NSAGs is a pillar of IHLs.[8] This protection lasts for as long as civilians refrain from taking direct part in hostilities (DPH).[9] Accordingly, girls are protected by law, from being objects of kidnapping by virtue of their civilian status. School girls from Dapchi in Nigeria, most of whom were later released, were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their secondary school. However, there has not been any indication from any of the parties as to the involvement of any of the girls in the armed conflict nor of the fact that they were taking DPH.[10] Thus, the act is an outright breach of IHLs as it demonstrates the ignorance of such NSAGs towards their responsibility of sparing civilians from targeting.

In addition, act or threat of violence whose primary purpose is spreading terror amongst civilians is prohibited in NIACs.[11] Acts that constitute such violence include assault, rape, abuse and torture of women and children among others.[12] These acts are particularly reprehensible for they are frequent and inflict particularly cruel suffering upon the civilian population.[13] The phrase ‘acts or threats of violence…’ under article 13(2) of AP II was intentionally left to be illustrative.[14] There is no exhaustive list of acts amounting to acts or threats of violence providing a space for kidnapping to be included. Besides, the acts provided as an example under Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck’s Customary International Humanitarian Law share a peculiar feature with kidnapping, i.e. negative long-lasting effect on the lives of victims.

The suffering from kidnappings is particularly cruel as the young girls, even beyond the kidnapping, are subject to further harm while captives and face multiple difficulties when/if they return. In addition to forming part as one of the six grave violations committed against children, kidnapping is usually only the starting point to further violations of International Humanitarian Laws (IHLs). In 2014, Yezidi young women and girls as young as 12 were kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) fighters who sold, gave them as a gift or forced them to marry to IS fighter/supporters. Many of them were further subject to rape and other forms of sexual violence. These acts are very traumatizing to the extent that some have attempted to end their own lives. Moreover, survivors of rape and conflict time violence are subject to stigmatization, rejection, and abandonment, upon their return.[15] Hence, kidnapping can form part of an act or threat of violence.

Moreover, women and children are specially protected in armed conflicts. Women benefit from special protection which entitles them protection in the various situations they may find themselves in.[16] Children are also entitled to care and aid they require provision of education, reunification with their families, protection from participating in hostilities and being recruited to armed groups and be taken out of areas of hostility.[17] Furthermore, both girls and women can benefit from the protection against rape and other forms of sexual violence.[18] Kidnapping is contrary to these special protections. Often, it results in outrages upon personal dignity of girls and women manifested through physical and sexual violence, among others. It mostly results in the denial of education to girls who will be kept away from their families and are forced to ´grow´ much faster than they would in their normal environment. There are even times where they are forced to take part in hostilities in different capacities.


Kidnapping is a violation of IHLs. It takes away the multiple opportunities that girls and women can make use of in the real world, making them more susceptible to harm than they already are in an unequal world. Moreover, the subsequent dangers they face while being kidnapped threatens their fundamental and basic rights. In addition, the harmful effect of kidnapping is not only to the girls and their immediate families but also to the broader community and global peace and security in general. It is a threat to the advancement that has been witnessed on the rights of girls and women over the years and undermines the role that IHLs play in the protection of these civilians.

[1] Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, ‘Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram’, (2014) 5(1), Journal of Terrorism Research, 46-57, p.47  

[2] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), 8 June 1977

[3] A.P.V. Rogers, ‘Law on the Battlefield’, (3rd edn, Manchester University Press, 2012), p.3

[4] Art. 49(1), Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977

[5] Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, 1987, para.1882 and para.4783

[6] Daragh Murray, ‘How International Humanitarian Law Treaties Bind Non-State Armed Groups’, (2015) 20(1), Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 101-131, p.101

[7] id [n.2] art.13(2)

[8] Jean-Marie Henckaerts and Louise Doswald-Beck, ‘Customary International Humanitarian Law’, (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 1 Rule 1

[9] id [n.2] art.13(2); id Rule 6

[10] The author believes that neither combatants nor members of NSAGs should be subject to kidnapping, as well. But protection for them can be better argued on the ground of limited means and methods of warfare than distinction.

[11] id [n.2] art.13(2); id [n.8] Rule 2

[12] id [n.8] Rule 2

[13] id [n.5] para.4785

[14] id

[15] Hawkar Ibrahim, Verena Ertl, Claudia Catani, Azad Ali Ismail and Frank Neuner, ‘Trauma and perceived social rejection among Yazidi women and girls who survived enslavement and genocide’, (2018) 16(154), BMC Medicine, p.2

[16] id [n.8] Rule 134; Common Article 3(1)(c) provides for prohibition of outrage upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment from which the protection of women can be inferred. 

[17] id [n.2] art.4(3); id [n.8] Rule 135

[18] id [n.8] Rule 93

Helina Stiphanos Teka is a research associate at the University of Münster. She has a Master of Laws in International Humanitarian Law from the University of Essex and Bachelor of Laws from Addis Ababa University. She can be reached at helinastiphanosteka@gmail.com