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Michael Riepl - Russian contributions to international humanitarian law - a contrastive analysis of Russia’s historical role and its current practice

Michael Riepl


This thesis explores Russia’s contribution to the development of international humanitarian law (IHL) and contrasts its historical role with its current practice on the battlefield. At first glance, Russia seems to have undergone a spectacular transformation:

On the one hand, Russia has made outstanding contributions to IHL. Historically, Russia was among the most important States – if not the most important State – in advancing, developing, and upholding IHL. The outstanding Russian diplomat and scholar Fyodor Martens (1845–1907), for example, cherished the dream of advancing IHL and adopting the first comprehensive code of warfare. He argued that the “country that successfully completes this matter […] will not only earn the gratitude of the people, whose suffering it has attenuated, but also the right to call herself the first nation among all the States who understand the essence of civilization and value the legitimate desire of civilized peoples.”[1] Russia’s initiatives led to the adoption of ground-breaking IHL treaties like the St Petersburg Declaration 1868 and the Hague Regulations of 1899 and 1907.

On the other hand, Russia’s current IHL record looks bleak. Despite its legacy and its current involvement in numerous wars, Russia has done little to advance IHL since 1991. On the contrary, Russia has often undermined its own legacy in recent times attempting to outmanoeuvre the constraints of IHL in various ways. This concerns Moscow’s stance in diplomatic negotiations, but it also extends to the implementation of IHL into national law and its practice on the battlefield.

The thesis first retraces Russia’s historical contributions starting from the “golden era” of IHL in the middle of the 19thcentury. It then analyses Russia’s current practice using case studies from wars with Russian participation since 1991 such as Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. Finally, it contrasts the findings and asks the question: Has Russia turned from “Paul to Saul” with regards to IHL?

[1] Ф.Ф. Мартенс [F.F. Martens], Восточная Война и Брюсселская Конферения 1874–1878 г [The Eastern War and the Brussels Conference 1874–1878] (Типография министерства путей сообщения [Printing House of the Ministry of Communication] 1879) 76.