International Humanitarian Law: Now’s the Time to Shape the Future

christy edwards

Christie Edwards, JD, LLM, is National Director of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) for the Red Cross. She has worked globally on international human rights, international humanitarian law, international development policy, and gender issues for over 15 years. As the Director of International Humanitarian Law at the American Red Cross, Christie leads the organization’s legal education, public, and youth outreach efforts on IHL, directly reaching over 50,000 people per year with a social reach of over 18 million.

In advance of the Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition, an annual event that will be held on March 12-15, 2016 in Seattle, Wash., we asked Christie to outline how International Humanitarian Law (IHL) plays out in our daily lives, here at home in the US, and around the world.

Q: Why should we be concerned with IHL and what role do IHL, and by extension the Geneva Conventions, have to play in our daily lives?

A: IHL impacts us all far more than we generally think about. As a starting point, almost everyone is somehow connected to someone in the military, either as a family member, friend, or colleague. IHL is intended to protect everyone, be it members of the military who have been captured, civilians caught in the crossfire, or health care workers who are delivering life-saving medical aid.

Q: What is the state of IHL today and how can the U.S. ensure that it is upheld?

A: The United States has a significant international presence and engaged in a war against a concept: terrorism. This has brought new challenges and greater complexity to the issue of IHL. Nonetheless, the Geneva Conventions are a universally ratified treaty, and to remain a leader in the global community the United States must adhere to the rules and lead by example. Although we discovered through polls that a significant number of Americans believe that torture can be acceptable, the majority of Americans believe that U.S. laws against torture should be strengthened because any use of torture is immoral and weakens international human rights. And if, as Americans, we seek to take the moral high road, it is our responsibility to ensure that situations such as we saw at Abu Ghraib, for example, don’t ever happen again.

Q: How does the American Red Cross figure into IHL more broadly?

A: The unique role of the American Red Cross rests on our mandate to educate the American public about IHL. The Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement obligates National Societies to “disseminate and assist their governments in disseminating international humanitarian law.” (Art. 3(2). Additionally, the Seville Agreement states that “National societies shall disseminate, and assist their governments in disseminating IHL.” (Art. 9.3.2). Finally, the United States Government made a pledge at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999 to “work to broaden and enhance efforts for dissemination of IHL, including in co-operation with the American Red Cross.”

Globalization has reshaped our world, and as a humanitarian actor, the American Red Cross cannot operate in a silo. This has prompted our organization to examine issues beyond our borders, such as targeted attacks on health workers and the use of torture. In the case of health workers, the consequences of violating IHL are devastating. Children don’t get access to vaccines or medicine, they die of largely preventable disease, and the loss of life is staggering.

Q: What are the challenges of engaging the public and how do you overcome them?

A: The rhetoric of fear is a powerful tool, and after the attacks in Paris and California, public attitudes towards the civilians and victims of ISIL and the Syrian conflict, among many others, have not always been receptive. Since the foundation of the Geneva Conventions is to protect civilians in conflict, the efforts by the American Red Cross and our partner National Societies to provide assistance to refugees is exactly in line with our objectives and those whom we have a responsibility to serve. By providing assistance to refugees, we are providing for the needs of the most vulnerable and those who have been deemed eligible for assistance by the US Government.

Through our IHL Action Campaign program, engaging with youth has been especially rewarding. We discovered that they are highly receptive to the principles of IHL and readily motivated to become advocates for the protection of civilians in conflict and ensuring that all people are treated with humanity.

We are also mobilizing law students through the Clara Barton IHL Competition, introducing them to legal scholars who lead in this field and providing a front-row view to the challenges and obligations of IHL in real-life situations. People often talk about planting seeds. I see the Clara Barton Competition as planting acorns. These emerging law professionals who are drawn to IHL will become titans in this field, leading the conversation, they will move and shape the world and they will be spearheading organizations like Amnesty International, agencies such as the State Department and as high-level government advisors, ensuring that the rules of war always protect civilians and those who are most vulnerable during conflict.

I’m passionate about this event, I see it as an opportunity to shape the world view as these professionals step into their careers, and as an extension, it’s an opportunity to shape the future of the world.


About the Clara Barton the Competition

The American Red Cross is excited to announce the 3rd Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition, to be held March 12-14, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. Named after the founder of the American Red Cross, this simulation-based experiential legal competition will expose rising professionals to the practice of IHL and to real world challenges facing IHL practitioners during armed conflict.

Throughout the Competition, participants will engage in practical role playing exercises, during which they will be asked to assume various professional roles and accomplish a wide range of tasks reflective of those performed by practitioners in the field. Unlike traditional moot court competitions, participants will explore the application of the law through fictional, but realistic case studies of armed conflict which continue to evolve throughout the Competition, offering participants a dynamic and creative atmosphere in which to explore complex legal issues. The Competition will test participants’ knowledge of international humanitarian law and public international law, as well as their ability to present, advocate for, and defend legal positions to a diverse range of stakeholders in different simulated environments.

The Clara Barton Competition is open to law students pursuing Juris Doctor (J.D.), Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) or Master of Laws (LL.M.) degrees at law schools within the United States and Canada, as well as students attending United States and Canadian military academies and institutions.

Stayin’ Alive: One Beep Could Save a Life

By: Maclain Borsich
Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas Chapter- Bremerton, WA

stayin alive story photo

From left to right: Evie Schwerin, Mike Scott, Maclain Borsich, Leah Kruc, Jessica Strandlund, Steve Fisher, Tony Hillman, Bill Mutter, Robert Hopkins

Early on a Saturday morning, volunteers, staff and AmeriCorps members gathered at the American Red Cross in Bremerton to go out into the surrounding neighborhoods and install free smoke alarms in homes. The Home Fire Campaign is in full swing across the nation and the end goal is to reduce injuries and fatalities caused by home fires by 25% over five years.

Installing one smoke alarm in a home could save a person’s life. Not only were we present to install up to three of these devices, but we were graciously allowed into individuals’ homes to educate them on fire safety as well as earthquake and winter storm preparedness.

Tony Hillman, one of the four Disaster Preparedness and Response Coordinators in the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas Chapter, led the group in an informative training before teams were selected and sent out with their list of addresses and supplies. Three teams of three were equipped with step ladders, drills, educational material and an assortment 10 year and 1 year battery smoke alarms.

The day was organized in such way that each team knew exactly whose house they were going to, where it was located, and when they were scheduled to be there. For our first installation event this year, it went off without a hitch.

Surprisingly, the sun was shining down on us after days of power outages, wind and rain…one could say this was a sign and that we were bound for successful day! A local coffee shop kindly donated homemade cookies to sustain us on our smoke alarm blitz. We were able to install 51 alarms in a four hour time period.

In the words of one of our newest volunteers Steve Fisher, “We touched a bunch of lives and made 23 houses safer.  A good day.” It was a very good day indeed. Even if it had been a typical dreary Washington day, it will always be a good day to keep stayin’ alive and saving lives.

Seattle Stand Down: One Red Cross, Many Ways to Help Vets


By Jenée Alston, Red Cross AmeriCorps Member

What was the take away from the recent Seattle Stand Down, held December 17-18 at Seattle Central Community College in the Capitol Hill neighborhood?

There is an overwhelming need among US veterans who have found themselves living on the streets of our city. And it is amazing what we can accomplish as one Red Cross!

What is a Stand Down? I didn’t truly know until I offered to assist with one. What I discovered is an amazing array of community partners, joining forces to provide homeless veterans with meals, clothing and outreach for direct client services to assist with housing, emotional support and mental health, and more! Our team helped serve a hot meal from Fare Start, others brought home-baked cookies and snacks, clothing, backpacks, there were even comfort dogs to greet everyone at the door.

I joined Red Cross as an AmeriCorps member in the fall. It was fitting that I assist the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) team, who regularly collaborate in Stand Downs. My dad is a vet. I spent my youth moving around the country, as he moved from station to station: Virgina, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona and—finally—Olympia, Washington. My mom is also involved with the military as the veterans outreach coordinator for South Puget Sound Community College.

While I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Stand Down, I was overwhelmed by the appreciation for the role of the Red Cross in this event. I sat in the area that was dedicated to female vets, offering comfort kits. I heard a lot of stories and I gathered that there is a lot of interest in what the Red Cross does to assist vets and members of the military. The women’s section was complete with clothing, backpacks, shoes, even purses and belts as well as clothing and shoes for children.  It was an interesting place to be, I wondered if women came to mind when people thoughts of homeless vets?

At the end of the busy two-day event, we distributed over 200 hygiene comfort kits and Holiday Mail for Heroes cards from the Girl Scouts. Our Disaster Services team fed and cared for our homeless veterans for two days. Our Volunteer Services were wonderfully effective in finding the best of our community and who have a desire to serve; I was lucky to meet a number of Red Crossers as a result.  We also were able to share our story and work with a number of our supporters, and a wonderful opportunity to highlight one of the many ways we are filling gaps in our community to make it stronger.

Enthusiasm for Blood Donations Spans Three Generations

By Kayla Ihrig


Despite never receiving a blood transfusion herself, a Montesano woman has coordinated thirty blood drives and counting.

“I’m not a hero, I just have mad organizational skills,” Jennie said. “It’s just so fun. It’s a small community and it’s my way of helping out.”

Jennie McLean is a mother and secretary of the Montesano United Methodist Church. She started coordinating drives in 2010 in Montesano, Washington, located in Grays Harbor County and home to 4,000 residents. The Montesano blood drives have a reputation for homemade cookies and fun, and draw donors from neighboring towns.

“We have people tell us they drive further to our drives because they’re so much fun,” Jennie said with a smile.

An enthusiasm for blood donations runs in Jennie’s family. Her father, James McLean, is a Korean War veteran and donated blood in the service. After that, he began donating with the Red Cross and is expecting to reach the 25 gallon milestone in May.

“It’s not much gasoline, but go look at 24 gallons in your dairy case and see how much it is,” said James McLean, age 82. 


Jennie has donated 15 units, approximately enough to save 45 lives. Her brother, Jim, is also a donor, nearing the six gallon milestone, which is approximately enough to save 144 lives. Jennie’s daughter, Laura, is a senior at Montesano High School and has been volunteering in the canteen area of the blood drives since she was 12 years old. 

“My mom can’t donate so she makes cookies, and my daughter is afraid of needles so she works really hard helping facilitate,” she said. “And the dog comes to make people smile. It’s a family affair.”

As of October 2015, Jennie’s blood drives have collected enough blood to save 3,500 lives.

Former EMT Helps Prepare Bellingham

By Kayla Ihrig


A former emergency medical technician  (EMT) is using their training to educate the Bellingham community on first aid and disaster preparedness.

A new addition to the team, AmeriCorps member Prentiss Andrews, has taken the role of disaster preparedness coordinator for the Bellingham Red Cross office. He’s also a disaster action team (DAT) volunteer, who respond to disasters like home fires 24/7, and is working toward his certification to be a Red Cross volunteer CPR instructor.

Andrews received his undergraduate degree in geology from Western Washington University in Bellingham, and said the Red Cross is a good fit.

“Between the disaster preparedness curriculum and first aid for youth, it’s a good match for my interests,” Andrews said. “A lot of the issues we talk about are tied to geological issues, like landslides and earthquakes, so I’m fortunate to have studied that. They’re important things for kids and adults to learn about, and it’s also interesting for me on a personal level.”

In addition to being an EMT, Andrews was previously a Washington river guide and worked in energy development.

“Between working on the river and working in energy development, I’ve used my medical training on the job,” Andrews said. “Long-term, I’m looking to stay in the medical field.”

Andrews may pursue a career as a physicians assistant after the Red Cross. He hasn’t decided on a school or specialty, but his medical career may stay related to disaster response.

“Eventually, I think it would be fun to match a specialty with response/recovery work, so I’m excited to continue working with the Red Cross even after my term has ended, if possible.”

In addition to the personal interest in disaster education, Andrews enjoys working for the Red Cross. “Being able to work at a nonprofit helps me in a number of ways,” Andrews said.


To date, he has taught approximately 850 children and adults. The classes cover a range of topics, from children learning how to tie a sling to adults learning how to live without plumbing and electricity. He is also building relationships with the university and school district to educate as many students as possible.

Andrews is serving with the Red Cross until mid-July, but he doesn’t expect his work with the Red Cross of his community to end there.

“I want to maintain a volunteer status after my AmeriCorps term,” he said. “The large-scale relief is really cool and important but I think the community level engagement might be even more valuable.”







Community Continues to Heal After Fire

By Kayla Ihrig, an AmeriCorps member serving with the American Red Cross Northwest Region September 2015-July 2016

Photo Jan 05, 10 27 51 AM.jpg

When a large fire erupted New Year’s Eve at an Everett apartment complex, Red Cross volunteers responded immediately. Despite the holiday, disaster action team (DAT) volunteers mobilized on scene. In short time, an emergency shelter was established at a church across the street, providing a warm place to stay and ensuring displaced families were safe. Together, volunteer and residents ushered in the New Year. Without a doubt, it was a rough start to 2016.

Five days after the fire, I went to the shelter – the first shelter I’d ever seen – to talk to the families and help share their stories.

I was welcomed to the shelter by volunteers helping at a registration table. Elementary school children were lined up for a van to school, concerned mostly by the fact their winter break was over. The van driver took attendance and the children marched off to class with high-fives from volunteers.

What was previously a multipurpose room in the church was starting to resemble a home. Toddlers in footy pajamas played on cots decorated with quilts . A group of young children molded play dough and pushed big plastic trucks in the kids’ corner.

Some volunteers were already preparing taco salads for lunch while others swept the floors and returned stray Legos to the play area. Neighbors sat gathered around round tables watching their young kids play and talking. Four women offered to share their stories.

The first woman sat with her morning coffee and offered to share first, because she said that sharing her story helped her feel better. She had been preparing food for her family and visiting company for New Year’s Eve when the fire broke out. She helped all of the children out of the second story window before escaping herself. She didn’t do so without injury – she sustained burns, and her husband suffered a fracture from the jump.

A neighbor shared her story of helping catch the children as they came down from the second story, while her husband knocked on doors to alert everyone to the fire. He found a ladder and used it to help people escape.

They lost their homes, money and possessions, but one thing was unanimous amongst the women: the problems they worried about before the fire seemed much less important.

While they were sharing their stories, a man came in with new sticks of deodorant and toothpaste. The table erupted with laughter and chatter as they picked items to replace what had burned.

After giving their emotional accounts, the women all expressed their gratitude toward the strangers who had been working around the clock to help them. The church donated space and resources; restaurants donated food; Hand in Hand, a youth-focused Everett based nonprofit, donated time, resources and services; Red Cross volunteers came from towns away to help house, feed and provide ongoing support for the families.

Recovering from a disaster can be an emotionally draining and complicated process. Caseworkers meet one-on-one with people to create recovery plans, navigate paperwork and locate help from other agencies.

The shelter remains open and caseworkers are providing ongoing support for each family to assist them in their transition.

Thank you to Hand in Hand for translating conversations between volunteers and shelter residents