SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

Promoting Restraint During Armed Conflict: Synergies between Buddhism and International Humanitarian Law

Date: 9 July 2022Time: 1:00 PM

Finishes: 9 July 2022Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre (BGLT)

Type of Event: Round Table


International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a branch of international law that aims to regulate the means and methods of warfare in order to limit its worst effects. IHL aims in particular to protect civilians and other non-combatants, including the wounded, sick and prisoners of war. The main instruments of IHL are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, which have been universally ratified, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has an international mandate to promote it.

Religious principles have long informed the conduct of war, and laid down many of the foundations upon which IHL has developed. Given the challenges of enforcing IHL in the extreme conditions of armed conflict, the ICRC has stepped up its engagement with religious circles in recent years to improve compliance with IHL and corresponding religious norms, and to foster dialogue and collaboration between humanitarian and religious actors. Much of its work in this respect is showcased on the ICRC’s Religion and Humanitarian Principles website:

The role that Buddhism can play in informing the conduct of war had nevertheless been relatively neglected, and the ICRC launched a project on Buddhism and IHL in 2017 to fill this gap. This event brings together Buddhist scholars, IHL experts and humanitarians involved in the project to present their research at the interface between Buddhism and IHL; the final roundtable adds the contribution of scholars of law, politics, and Buddhist practitioners. Speakers and discussants will open up debate on correspondences and differences between Buddhism and IHL, and how they might combine to improve the conduct of hostilities.


Opening Remarks

1:00-1:10 Stefania Travagnin: Welcome and event introduction

1:10-1:40 Andrew Bartles-Smith: Introduction to IHL and the ICRC’s work with religious circles to explore correspondences between IHL and religious principles.

Presentations and Initial Discussion (Chair: Stefania Travagnin)

1:45-2:30 Christina Kilby: ‘The Gift of Fearlessness: A Buddhist Principle of Protection’

2:30-3:15 Noel J. M. Trew: ‘Not Knowing is Most Intimate: Meditation and the Fog of War’

3:15-4:00 Vishakha Wijenayake: ‘Limiting the Risk to Combatant Lives: Confluences between International Humanitarian Law and Buddhism’

Coffee Break

Roundtable Discussion and Q&A

4:30-5:00 Discussants’ remarks

5:00-6:00 Open Q&A

Paper abstracts

Christina Kilby ‘The Gift of Fearlessness: A Buddhist Principle of Protection’
This presentation introduces the Buddhist teaching on “the gift of fearlessness” as a framework for the protection of populations vulnerable to violence during times of conflict. The gift of fearlessness (abhayadāna), as developed in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist ethical and political thought, links protection to notions of basic human dignity and even predicates political sovereignty on the ability of a ruler to provide protection for those in fear for their lives. An application of Buddhist discourse on the gift of fearlessness to international humanitarian law (IHL) makes a compelling argument that the protection of non-combatants is essential to Buddhist identity, even during the worst of times.

Noel J. M. Trevor, ‘Not Knowing is Most Intimate: Meditation and the Fog of War’
The branch of international humanitarian law (IHL) dealing with targeting is notoriously challenging for decision makers to apply in practice. The rules of distinction, precautions and proportionality in attack form the bedrock of targeting law, but compliance with these rules requires combatants to correctly understand what is happening on the ground. Since ambiguity can be introduced by inadequate intelligence or information overload, how can combatants train themselves to successfully cut through the fog of war and make decisions which uphold the law? In Japanese Zen (Chinese: Chan) Buddhism, adherents typically practice meditation methods featuring elements of open monitoring and focused attention. By training the mind to recognise its attachments to particular concepts or habitual ways of problem-solving, those who take up certain meditation practices in the proper context may find themselves better prepared to make decisions based on ambiguous information, and to spot errors in their perception or thinking when considering such matters of grave importance.

Vishakha Wijenayake, ‘Limiting the Risk to Combatant Lives: Confluences between International Humanitarian Law and Buddhism’
This article places international humanitarian law (IHL) side by side with Buddhist narratives as seen through the Jātakas, to investigate how they view the expectation placed on soldiers to risk their lives in battle. To this end, I delve into the notion of reciprocity of risk in battle from an IHL perspective, which I argue is crucial to infusing warfare with restraint. Similarly, Buddhism acknowledges the importance of reciprocity as an ethical principle which leads to non-violence. I demonstrate how IHL tries to ensure that the risk that combatants undertake in combat is limited through its rule of surrender. I compare this argument with the Seyyaṃsa or Seyya Jātaka (no.282), which illustrates the need to cease violence in cases of surrender. The way militaries treat their own combatants is crucial to the meaningful practice of surrender and thereby the limits and restraints of warfare. Buddhism too encourages rulers to value the lives of their soldiers and not to put their lives at unnecessary risk. I conclude that to maximise the combatant’s choice to limit the risk he takes in battle, IHL should pay more attention to the orders that militaries and armed groups issue to their combatants. Buddhism for its part can facilitate the constructive use of military orders because it projects positive images of rulers who are reluctant to order their soldiers to take unnecessary risks in war.

Speakers’ bio

Andrew Bartles-Smith is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Regional Manager for Humanitarian Affairs in Asia. He has twenty years of conflict and emergency-relief related experience in Asia, with particular expertise in insurgency and engagement with non-state armed groups. He has pioneered ICRC engagement with religious circles in Asia to promote research and debate on correspondences between International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and religious teachings. He leads the ongoing ICRC project on ‘Reducing Suffering During Conflict: The Interface Between Buddhism and IHL.’

Christina Kilby is Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University, and specialises in Tibetan Buddhism. Her current research addresses how religion influences experiences of displacement as well as the political ethics of exclusion and belonging. She regularly consults for humanitarian organisations and leads a working group on Buddhism, Displacement, and International Humanitarian Law. She earned her B.A. degree in Religious Studies from Davidson College, her Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School, and her Ph.D. in the history of religions from the University of Virginia. She received a Fulbright-Hays fellowship in 2013-14 and has conducted fieldwork among Tibetan communities in China, India, Nepal, and the United States.

Noel J. M. Trew is an International Law Adviser for the British Red Cross, a former Red Cross volunteer, and a former US Air Force research psychologist and instructor. Additionally, he was a Buddhist lay leader for the US Air Force Academy’s Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE). He holds a Ph.D. in Strategy and Security Studies from the University of Exeter, a M.A. in Social Psychology from Florida Atlantic University and a B.Sc. in Behavioral Sciences from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Vishakha Wijenayake is a Doctoral candidate at McGill University, Faculty of Law specialising in International Humanitarian Law. At McGill, she is also an O’Brien Fellow attached to the Centre for Human Rights and Pluralism. She holds a master’s degree in Law from University of Michigan Ann Arbor where she was a Fulbright Scholar and a Hugo Grotius Fellow. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Law from Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. Previously, she has worked as a consultant and legal advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross and as a lecturer at the Department of Law, University of Jaffna.

This event is free and open to all

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

Contact email:

Sponsor: Khyentse Foundation