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International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

What is IHL and its relevance?

International humanitarian– also known as the Law of Armed Conflict – law is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed  conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict. The rules apply not only to governments and their armed forces, but also to armed opposition groups and other parties to a conflict. IHL and international human rights law are complementary. Both strive to protect the lives, health and dignity of individuals.

International humanitarian law is part of international law, which is the body of rules governing relations between States. International law is contained in agreements between States - treaties or conventions -, in customary rules, which consist of State practise considered by them as legally binding, and in general principles.

International humanitarian law applies only to armed conflicts. It does not regulate when a State may actually use force; this is governed by an important, but distinct, part of international law set out in the United Nations Charter1.

IHL is divided into two branches:

  • Law of Geneva; and
  • Law of The Hague.

The Law of Geneva, which is designed to safeguard military personnel who are no longer taking part in the fighting and people not actively involved in hostilities, i.e. civilians.

These categories of person are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and mental integrity. They also enjoy legal guarantees. They must be protected and treated humanely in all circumstances, with no adverse distinction.

More specifically: it is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or is unable to fight; the sick and wounded must be collected and cared for by the party in whose power they find themselves. Medical personnel, supplies, hospitals and ambulances must all be protected.

There are also detailed rules governing the conditions of detention for prisoners of war and the way in which civilians are to betreated when under the authority of an enemy power. This includes the provision of food, shelter and medical care, and the right to exchange messages with their families.

The law sets out a number of clearly recognizable symbols which can be used to identify protected people, places and objects. The main emblems are the red cross, the red crescent and the symbols identifying cultural property and civil defence facilities. As protected emblems their unauthorised use is prohibited by international and national law.

The Law of the Hague which establishes the rights and obligations of belligerents in the conduct of military operations, and limits the means of harming the enemy.

International humanitarian law prohibits all means and methods of warfare which:

  • fail to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not, the purpose being to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian property;
  • cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering;
  • cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.

Humanitarian law has therefore banned the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons, antipersonnel landmines and blinding laser weapons.

Various types of armed conflicts

To know the applicable IHL provisions, one must distinguish between an international armed conflict and a non international armed conflict.

International armed conflicts are those in which at least two States are involved. They are subject to a wide range of rules, including those set out in the four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I.

Non-international armed conflicts are those restricted to the territory of a single State, involving either regular armed forces fighting groups of armed dissidents, or armed groups fighting each other. A more limited range of rules apply to internal armed conflicts and are laid down in Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions as well as in Additional Protocol II.

Termination of IHL application

IHL ceases to be applied when three conditions are met:

  1. Military operations are terminated;
  2. Situations of occupation are terminated; and
  3. The people confined as a result of the armed conflict, i.e. prisoners of war and civilians, have been released and repatriated or established in the country of their choice.
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