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The Battle of Solferino and the Genesis of International Humanitarian Law

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In a world where warfare and civil strife are a daily reality for millions, humanitarian organizations across the globe are gathering in Italy for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Solferino. However, outside of a small circle of humanitarian organizations, the battle of Solferino and the name "Henri Dunant" have been largely lost in annuals of history. Dunant's experience at Solferino providing the catalyst for the establishment of what would later become the International Red Cross, and the development of jurisprudence known as international humanitarian law.

On June 24, 1859, Henri Dunant, a Geneva businessperson, witnessed the horrors of war at the Battle of Solferino in Italy. Thousands of soldiers, from both sides, were lying wounded on the fields of battle. It is estimated that in 10 hours of fighting, more than 6,000 soldiers were killed and more than 30,000 wounded. The medical services were overwhelmed and unable to cope with the massive influx of wounded soldiers in need of care. Shocked by the suffering of soldiers wounded in the fighting, Dunant organized volunteers to care for them, regardless of which side they fought.

Dunant later returned to Geneva and wrote "A Memory of Solferino" in which he highlighted the lack of medical treatment and an appealed for a system to ameliorate suffering. "Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers," he wrote. Dunant also proposed institutionalizing the existence of the societies in a charter, essentially proposing what was to become the first Geneva Convention dictating the most basic rules of war in relation to aiding the wounded. To carryout these ends, Dunant gathered prominent medics, politicians and military men, and in 1863, convened the committee that would become known as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As a result of the horrors witnessed by Dunant 150 years ago, the global community, benefited from international humanitarian law. This growing body of law, originally contemplated by Dunant, seeks to limit the suffering caused by war by forcing parties engaged in a conflict to: 1) engage in limited methods and means of warfare; 2) differentiate between civilian population and combatants, and work to spare civilian population and property; 3) abstain from harming or killing an adversary who surrenders or who can no longer take part in the fighting; and 4) abstain from physically or mentally torturing or performing cruel punishments on adversaries. While national leaders sometimes disregard these noble goals, it is international humanitarian law that we now turn to hold our leaders, and those acting on their behalf, responsible for their failure to abide by humane standards of conduct. The dead and wounded on Solferino's fields of battle cry out from their 150-year-old graves for us to hold our leaders responsible for their crimes against humanity.

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Lawrence J. Gist II is a dedicated pro bono attorney and counselor at law, adjunct professor of legal studies at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, CA, a member of the board of directors of the Institute of Indigenous Knowledges, and a veteran (more...)
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