When most people think of Red Cross in Australia, they think “bloods and floods”. Red shirts can be seen in evacuation centres, supporting communities after disasters, helping them to prepare for future emergencies, fundraising in communities around the country, or even greeting newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers at Australian airports.
But while those are some of the most visible parts of what Australian Red Cross does, a small team also delivers vital work away from the spotlight, ensuring the laws of war, also known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), are respected – and that people affected by war, as well as Red Cross staff and volunteers helping them around the world, are protected: the Australian Red Cross IHL team.
IHL Legal Adviser Pranamie Mandalawatta is part of this team.
Less than three years ago, Pranamie was working as an IHL adviser for the Australian Government, but she was inspired by the impact of Australian Red Cross.
“Sitting at the same table as Red Cross teams, I have never seen a civil society organisation have so much influence and credibility. I can see why people listen to Red Cross. It’s hard for people to dispute what we stand for as a global humanitarian Movement,” she said.
She joined Red Cross in 2021, and now partners with her former colleagues in Government and the legal sector to influence laws and policy decisions, educate and train stakeholders to ensure IHL is taken into account to create better humanitarian outcomes in situations of armed conflict.
“I joined because I wanted to make a difference, to use my skills to bring positive change in the world. And that’s the special thing about being part of Red Cross: you might be only one person, but you have the weight of the entire International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement behind you. It’s a privilege to be a part of a global network of millions of people, working towards the benefit of humanity.”
With more than 100 armed conflicts currently taking place around the world, the role of IHL is more relevant than ever. In less than two years, Pranamie has worked with incredibly complex challenges in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Syria.
After the fall of Kabul in August 2021, economic sanctions had a huge impact on the provision of humanitarian assistance.
“United Nations sanctions were keeping local humanitarian workers from getting paid and led to significant delays and blockages in getting life-saving assistance to the people of Afghanistan. My role at the time included engaging with the Australian Government and the Movement to enact humanitarian exemptions to these sanctions, so communities could get the humanitarian support they needed,” she said.
“Other types of sanctions are currently causing similar issues in Syria and Ukraine. We’re advocating for changes to Australian sanction laws to facilitate impartial humanitarian assistance in areas where it is needed the most.”
Pranamie’s achievements have earned her a nomination to the prestigious Lawyers’ Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards, which recognises Australia’s rising stars in the legal sector. She has been shortlisted as a finalist under the Government category.
“It’s encouraging to see IHL recognised within the Legal sector, even more so in the Government category of the awards. We engage extensively with government to ensure IHL best practices are embedded in Australia’s laws, policies and operations – a task that is only possible because we have a shared goal of improving humanitarian outcomes.”
In addition to engaging with the Government and the legal sector, the Australian Red Cross IHL team also partners with other key sectors of society, including the Military, Academia, the health and humanitarian sector, international organisations and the private sector. They also engage with the general public and staff, members and volunteers at Australian Red Cross.
“As a team, our goal is to ensure that all Australians understand and, where applicable, apply and interpret IHL in accordance with Australia’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, their Additional Protocols of 1977 and all other relevant instruments, to maintain some humanity in armed conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering,” Pranamie said.
No two days are the same for the IHL team: they’re either responding to world events, raising awareness of IHL, or embedding IHL best practices into laws, policies and operations.
“Our work is careful, considerate, slow and diplomatic, but I am happy to have found an environment where we’re encouraged to do what we’re passionate about to bring about positive, incremental, changes in several spheres.”
Pranamie believes Australian Red Cross – and the International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement as a whole – is uniquely placed to act in the IHL space.
“IHL is part of the DNA of our Movement, with three key things setting us apart from other organisations: first, we have a humanitarian mandate, under the Geneva Conventions, to disseminate and promote respect for IHL. We do this in our role as auxiliary to government and public authorities,” she said.
“Second, our Fundamental Principles, the very core of International Humanitarian Law, guide everything we do as a Movement.
“Lastly, our humanitarian diplomacy, which provides a clear, consistent, exclusively humanitarian focus to the way we approach advocacy and influence with our stakeholders. This helps build and maintain trust and confidence in Red Cross.”
And the need for IHL will only grow in the future.
“As one of our main priorities in the IHL space, Red Cross will continue to call for the complete prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, like our Movement has been doing for over 75 years. The only way to end the catastrophic and ongoing threat of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them.
“The advent of new technologies and artificial intelligence, and its evolving use in armed conflicts, has also created new challenges for our Movement, such as with cyber warfare, data protection, and lethal automated weapon systems. We need to ensure these new technologies are developed in accordance with IHL, so that the laws of war are respected.
“Looking to the future, the IHL team will continue to advocate for humanity as these new challenges arise.”