Introduction: Global
Norms, Local Contexts
Simon Chesterman

The origins of modern international humanitarian law, the problematic body of rules designed to limit suffering in time of war, can be traced back to the Austro-Italian War of 1859. Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman, happened to arrive in Castiglione della Pieve on the same day that the Battle of Solférino was fought nearby—a “mere tourist, ” as he wrote in the memoir of what he witnessed. The brutality of the battle was not untypical of its time, but Dunant's depiction of the human misery was graphic and pointed. In particular, he focused on the aftermath of battle, the wounded men whose numbers overwhelmed the army medical services and began to fill the town:

Men of all nations lay side by side on the flagstone floors of the churches of Castiglione—Frenchmen and Arabs, Germans and Slavs. Ranged for the time being close together inside the chapels, they no longer had the strength to move, or if they had there was no room for them to do so. Oaths, curses and cries such as no words can describe resounded from the vaulting of the sacred buildings. 1

Dunant called for the establishment of “relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime” and “international principles” to serve as the basis and support for these societies—precursors to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and international humanitarian law. This set the stage for the more formal convention on the laws and customs of war adopted at the Hague International Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907.

A century later, what is striking about these conventions is the near absence of provisions for the protection of civilians. This reflected the nature of wars in Europe at the time, dominated by set-piece battles between professional standing armies. At the same time, one concern of negotiators at The Hague was to limit the application of the new laws of war to such professional

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