International humanitarian law: There’s theory – and then there’s practice

Koichi Oi is a Protection Delegate from Japan working for the ICRC in Davao City, the Philippines. Keen on doing humanitarian work and with a background in law and project management, he had the right skill set to start his career as a generalist delegate and progress from there.


How did it all start?

I have always been interested in humanitarian work, peace and security. While I was studying for my master’s degree in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I learnt about the ICRC and their role as the guardian of international humanitarian law. I became fascinated by the topic as everything I learnt in classes was being challenged by what I saw happening in Israel and the occupied territories. The interpretations of distinction and proportionality reported in the media often differed from what I was taught in class. I felt that humanitarian law had to be followed properly by the parties to the conflict to protect civilians and it motivated me to work on this area.

When I got back to Japan, I worked for an international non-governmental organization for four years. I was a project manager and spent around two years in various countries in Africa, working alongside South Sudanese refugees. Hearing the stories of refugee children who had lost their homes, families and friends made me so sad. They fled during an attack and walked for several days, afraid of being caught up in another. On top of that, statistically, it can take many years before it’s safe for them to return home. I thought that suffering like this could be avoided if I worked with all parties to a conflict, preventing the targeting of civilians and hence people getting killed or displaced, instead of only addressing the consequences of the conflict. So, I applied to work for the ICRC, which works directly with weapon bearers to stop civilian suffering, and after a long recruitment process, I was accepted!

What was your first assignment like?

I was a detention delegate in Maiduguri, Nigeria. I must admit that I had to google Maiduguri because I had no clue where it was. Google described it as “a centre of conflict” and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs marked it as a “red zone”. I got a bit nervous after seeing that; but at the same time, it meant that I could help the most vulnerable people. This is the exciting part of working for the ICRC for me – to be able to really help those most in need. During my detention visits in Maiduguri, I grew close to a group of vulnerable detainees held in relation to the armed conflict. It was hard to hear their challenges every time I visited. But, our continued dialogue with the authorities, and our recommendations based on humanitarian law and domestic law, worked and brought positive outcomes. It was an emotional moment to see our work in detention pay off.

What are you doing now?

I am currently in Davao City in the Philippines. We had to suspend all planned field trips because of COVID-19 but, since September 2020, we have resumed field trips to remote communities in mountainous areas affected by violence. Before going there, I read the reports about armed clashes in the areas despite the pandemic, reportedly displacing civilians. Our team of five staff members (economic security, water and habitat, health, protection) spoke to village leaders, municipal authorities and military commanders and confirmed the details. We also identified their concerns, assessed the priority needs and handed out food, hygiene kits and other supplies. Those we helped were very grateful. Field trips are always valuable and help me understand the context of the situation much better.

What’s it like talking to weapon bearers?

You learn in class that the ICRC works on the promotion of international humanitarian law and the protection of victims of armed conflict. This one phrase is very heavy and means a lot, especially for the affected populations we work for. As a delegate, you have the unique opportunity to talk to all parties to an armed conflict. The aim is to build trust, engage in dialogue with them on the right to protection under humanitarian law and move them towards abiding by the rules. I still get nervous sometimes, especially when discussing sensitive issues with weapon bearers and detaining authorities. It is already tough to establish a contact with some non-state armed groups, and it is much harder to ask them for a change in behavior. While remaining neutral, you have to convey your concerns – which could involve serious violations of humanitarian law – and suggest practical solutions. It’s a hard balance to strike, especially because most of your contacts have a lot more authority than you. Sometimes they don’t want to see us, don’t listen, or seem to agree but then do the opposite. The process of talking, suggesting, reminding them of the rules and international standards … it takes a lot of effort. To make matters worse, violations of humanitarian law may still happen, but you cannot lose your cool. Perseverance and the belief in what we do is crucial. When things go right and we help prevent or relieve suffering for those in need, the moral reward is immense.

Are there no downsides?

One of the downsides to working at the ICRC is being away from your family. The eight-hour time difference between Japan and Nigeria made it hard for me to call home. Some of the working conditions can also be difficult, such as spending a whole day in a prison with temperatures over 40 degrees. Luckily, I can count on colleagues for their kindness and support. In the evenings, we laugh about our worst experiences (bucket showers, vehicles getting stuck in the mud, etc.). The online community of delegates is also a great way to hear success stories, discuss challenges and learn. My talent manager in Geneva offers career advice too. As I see myself working at the ICRC for a long time, she’s talked me through what other kinds of assignments I could go on and helped me determine what skills I need to develop. I’m studying French at the moment to expand my career opportunities. Even though it’ll take a lot of time to master the language, I’m making progress.

In a few words, what does it take to succeed?

I’ll give you three.

Adaptability: I always try to learn a bit of the local language so that I can leave a better impression and show my respect to the local community and resident colleagues. You should also be culturally sensitive, as you are working with people who do things differently to you.

Patience: In my previous job, I was a project manager. I expected outcomes at the end of the project. But in this line of work, it can take years before you see any changes during your assignment, if at all. But don’t get discouraged; be patient. Keep doing what you have to do with enthusiasm in the hope of seeing some changes soon.

Passion: If you don’t have a passion for it, you can’t do humanitarian work. Don’t lose that passion, whatever happens, even during difficult times.