What Does A Humanitarian Lawyer Do? We Explain

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As we see accounts of horrific violence committed by army’s, militia and terrorist groups on the news, we wonder if these people will face justice. International humanitarian law governs armed violence with the aim to limit its impact on both soldiers and civilians. When it is broken, humanitarian lawyers work tirelessly to hold violators to account. It’s vital work, but how can war criminals face justice, and what does a humanitarian lawyer actually do?

Humanitarian lawyers work to hold war criminals and those who break international humanitarian law to account. They do this by working through many legal procedures across different jurisdictions with the aim to bring those who commit crimes as parts of conflicts to trial and achieve justice to their victims.

It is challenging but important work. With that said, to give you a full overview, we’ve broken down the main task’s humanitarian lawyers undertake…

Fights Cases

The most important thing a humanitarian lawyer does is fight cases. International humanitarian law covers armed violence and conflict. Humanitarian lawyers bring cases against war criminals and other violators of international humanitarian law. Bringing cases to the international criminal court, or specific courts in relevant countries is one of the main things humanitarian lawyers do.

Cases of international humanitarian law can vary widely. They can include anything from the illegal use of landmines or cluster-munitions to acts of genocide. Building cases and bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice is the main thing humanitarian lawyers do. Although a lot of support work goes into building and bringing cases, actually fighting criminal trials against those who break international humanitarian law is the most important thing a humanitarian lawyer does.

Does Research

In order for humanitarian lawyers to bring cases they must complete extensive research. This is another crucial thing humanitarian lawyers do. Building a solid case against war criminals means getting as much information as possible about the events that took place. The research humanitarian lawyers must do is extensive if they are to bring violators of international humanitarian law to justice.

When humanitarian lawyers research cases they can use a wide variety of techniques. This can include visiting sites of potential war crimes and interviewing people affected as well as looking at records and documentation. Solid research is key in legal proceedings relating to international humanitarian law and so it’s one of the crucial things humanitarian lawyers do.

Liaises with Legal Bodies

Another thing humanitarian lawyers do is liaise directly with different legal bodies related to international humanitarian law and the cases they are working on. International humanitarian law covers a wide range of legal proceedings often overseen by many different institutions. One of things humanitarian lawyers do is work with the different legal bodies related to their cases.

Working with different courts, international organisations, legal councils and other lawyers are just some of the network’s humanitarian lawyers need to utilise for each case. Knowing which organisations and people to liaise with can be crucial in moving cases forward and building a strong prosecution or defence. Taking meetings, building relationships and directly liaising with a ride range of institutions is a really important thing humanitarian lawyers do.

Builds Teams

One of the things a humanitarian lawyer does is put legal teams together. Building a case against violators of international humanitarian law can be highly complex and humanitarian lawyers do not work alone. Recruiting professionals with the right expertise as well as sourcing staff from within their agency to work on the case is a key thing humanitarian lawyers do.

It’s vital that humanitarian lawyers pull together the right skills, experience and knowledge needed to fight their cases. Often teams come together from within law firms but sometimes outside expertise is needed. Knowing how to source, work with and get the best from other legal professionals is definitely an important thing that humanitarian lawyers work at.

Collects Evidence

Humanitarian lawyers build effective cases against those who violate international humanitarian law. One part of doing this is collecting evidence. Humanitarian lawyers work in many different ways to collect evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although gaining evidence from conflict zones can be challenging, it’s a key thing humanitarian lawyers need to do.

The evidence humanitarian lawyers collect for cases of breaches of international humanitarian law can differ from that collected for more standard criminal cases. Interviews with victims, researching documents and records as well as using cutting edge mapping technology can all be crucial to collecting evidence. Getting the right evidence can be one of the main things humanitarian lawyers undertake.

Prepares Documentation

Another thing humanitarian lawyers work at is preparing documentation. Legal cases can be highly complex and rigorous records, documents and data needs to be prepared for each case. Often humanitarian lawyers have team members who assist with document preparation but ensuring the quality of legal documents sits with the lawyer. Document preparation is a crucial thing humanitarian lawyers must complete.

Legal documents need to be highly accurate and prepared correctly. Ensuring that procedures have been followed when drawing-up legal documents is a key undertaking of a humanitarian lawyer. Often cases of international humanitarian law span many countries and legal jurisdictions and so making sure documentation is compliant in all areas is another thing humanitarian lawyers do.

Files Records

Alongside preparing documentation, humanitarian lawyers must also keep extensive records. As a legal case is being built humanitarian lawyers must file records and information in ways that allow them to build a strong picture of the events that happened. Having good filing systems, record keeping and databases, as well as continuously maintaining these, is a major thing humanitarian lawyers do.

Humanitarian lawyers often have many staff under them and some of these will work on record keeping and filing. However, a humanitarian lawyer in a senior position must know how records are filed, and what information has already been put in place, if they are to build a strong case. Understanding information systems, filing and record keeping are key parts of being a humanitarian lawyer.

Interviews Witnesses

One thing all humanitarian lawyers do is conduct interviews. Cases related to international humanitarian law are highly complex and finding witnesses willing and able to talk about events can be hard. However, getting first-hand accounts, interviewing related people and recording eye-witness account are crucial to building a strong case. Humanitarian lawyers often complete many interviews for each case and this is a key part of the job.

Many trials of war criminals include bringing people who were affected by their crimes to testify against them. Before this can be done, humanitarian lawyers and their teams must complete a huge number of interviews with potential people who can testify to find our what they know, what happened and how they can be used in the trial. Interviewing victims is one of the key things humanitarian lawyers do.

Humanitarian Law Online Courses

If you want to learn more about international humanitarian law, and exactly what a humanitarian lawyer does, we highly recommend the online course International Humanitarian Law in Theory and Practice offered by Leiden University in the Netherlands. It only takes around 20 hours to complete and provides a fantastic overview of international humanitarian law and its implications. Follow the link for more information.

Another online course we think is fantastic for those interested in international humanitarian is The Evolution of International Criminal Law. This short course goes over the history of international criminal law and relates it directly to the modern concept of humanitarianism. Click the link to visit the course’s page.

For those that want an overview to the wider concepts of international law, including humanitarian law, check out the Introduction to International Law online course. We think it’s the best short course for those wanting to understand the broader concepts of international humanitarian law. The link takes you to the course’s page.

Collects Information

Alongside doing formal interviews, humanitarian lawyers also need to collect a huge amount of information in the work they do. Crimes against humanity and war crimes trials are hugely complex and so to build a strong case humanitarian lawyers must to get all the information they can. They also need to make sure the information they get is accurate, supportable and can be presented in court. Sourcing the right information is one a of the most crucial things humanitarian lawyers undertake.

Humanitarian lawyers and their teams use a huge range of methods to collect information. This can include field visits, interviews, researching documents and looking at the wider context of events. The more, and better quality, the information a humanitarian lawyer can pull together for a case the higher chances they have of winning. Finding information on war crimes can be difficult, but it’s one of the most important things humanitarian lawyers do.

Follows Legal Proceedings

Humanitarian lawyers work to ensure their cases are taken through all the legal steps that are required. Legal proceedings covering breaches in international humanitarian law can be heard in a range of institutions, from the International Criminal Court in the Hague to the European Court of Human Rights. As a result, humanitarian lawyers must make sure their cases are following all legal proceeding in the jurisdiction they are under.

One of the things humanitarian lawyers do is follow as legal proceedings for their cases progress. Cases relating to international humanitarian law can take years to complete and humanitarian lawyers need to ensure each step of the legal process is being adhered to. They also need to know how cases are progressing and when further actions, such as submitting further documents or attending sessions, is required.

Provides Advice

A thing humanitarian lawyers also do in their work is provide advice. This can be to individuals wishing to try and bring war criminals to justice, or more commonly, to institutions or NGOs looking to bring cases. Humanitarian lawyers provide advice on how to file cases and what is required as well as legal proceedings. Giving expert advice can be a big part of what humanitarian lawyers do.

Humanitarian lawyers need to be experts in their fields. In order to give good advice to their clients they need to know all elements of bringing complex international humanitarian law cases. Large international organisations and some major NGOs will have humanitarian lawyers on staff to provide advice. Like regular lawyers, humanitarian lawyers provide legal advice as key part of their job.

Fights for Justice

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, humanitarian lawyers fight for justice.  Although getting war criminals to trial can be extremely complex and difficult, humanitarian lawyers work tirelessly to bring justice to their victims. Humanitarian lawyers try to ensure that no crime against humanity goes unaccounted for and that victims of those who break international humanitarian law receive justice.

Humanitarian lawyers work on behalf of victims. Everything they do is victim focused and has the aim to ensure war criminals and those who break international humanitarian law know they will be held accountable. Through the tireless work of humanitarian lawyers some of the perpetrators of the worst atrocities have faced justice.

If you want to know more about what a humanitarian lawyer does, explore our page on the top humanitarian law online courses here.


Duncan is the founder of Humanitarian Careers. With over ten years experience in the aid industry across fifteen countries, Duncan set-up Humanitarian Careers to help people launch their own career in international aid.