The Review of International Organizations

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 337–359 | Cite as

A porous humanitarian shield: The laws of war, the red cross, and the killing of civilians

  • Margit Bussmann
  • Gerald SchneiderEmail author


An important literature examines the attempts by the international community in inducing or coercing conflict parties in civil wars to refrain from committing atrocities against the civilian population. We examine in this article whether a non-governmental actor, the distinctively neutral and independent International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mission includes the promotion of humanitarian law and the protection of the civilian population, has such a restraining effect on the conflict parties. Our results suggest that the more time has passed since the ratification of the relevant Geneva Conventions and Protocols, the larger is the risk of civilian victimization. We cannot find evidence that the ICRC’s presence in conflict zones and the seminars it conducts to spread humanitarian law make a crucial difference. Case studies of Bosnia and Darfur indicate that shaming strategies and thus a relatively unusual instrument for the traditionally neutral actor did not abate the killings; the statistical evidence in the form of Granger causality tests rather show that the killing and harming precedes the naming and shaming.


Civil war Laws of war Geneva conventions International Committee of the Red Cross One-sided violence Compliance 
JEL D74 K33 K42 F52 



The article has profited from comments by the audiences at several conferences and seminars. We are especially grateful to Kristin Eck, Erik Gartzke, Michaela Mattes, and Winfried Pohlmeier as well as the editor and two anonymous reviewers for detailed recommendations. We would also like to thank the Deutsche Stiftung Friedensforschung for supporting our research under grant DSF 004/07 and Isabel Schneider, Romy Escher, Sebastian Kuhn, Marina Beielstein, Kristof Lintz, Ivo Sieder and Oliver Neumann for research assistance, and the ICRC for access to its library resources and a discussion with ICRC collaborator Dominique Loye about our results.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and CommunicationsUniversity of GreifswaldGreifswaldGermany
  2. 2.Department of Politics and Public Administration and Graduate School of Decision SciencesUniversity of KonstanzConstanceGermany

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