CNCHL > Issues 

The Canadian National Committee for Humanitarian Law (CNCHL)
International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
IHL Links
International Bodies


Protection of Civilians

The First World War brought unprecedented suffering to civilians. Civilian populations became the targets of military attack, magnifying the problems of food and medicinal shortages caused by war restrictions. The massive use of poisonous gases terrorized both combatants and civilians in what was the largest theatre of combat to date. Following the war, it was determined that the issue of the use of poisonous gases would best be addressed through the development of a conventional framework. As a result, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was adopted in 1925.

Another convention was adopted four years later as a response to maltreatment of combatants once captured by opposing forces. The 1929 Geneva Convention regulated the treatment of the prisoners of war. Neither of these conventions included explicit protection to civilians. The need to ensure mandatory legal protection for civilians became a major concern.

The draft International Convention on the Condition and Protection of Civilians of Enemy Nationality who are on Territory Belonging to or Occupied by a Belligerent , which also arose out of the suffering of civilians during the First World War, was presented in Tokyo in 1934 . Two categories of civilians were to be protected by this instrument: enemy civilians on the territory of a belligerent and civilians in the power of the enemy in occupied territories. However, the belligerents never put this draft into effect.

The Second World War was a turning point, being characterized by the massive bombings of cities, air raids, the systemic and colossal deportation and displacement of populations, generating massive civilian casualties. The need to respond through international humanitarian law was abundantly clear. Hence, the protection of civilians was made an international priority. Though not perfect, the 1949 Geneva Conventions established a solid basis of law governing those instances when military considerations and humanitarian exigencies clash. The protection of civilians is therefore ensured in armed conflicts of either international or non-international character.

Vulnerability of Civilian Population in Times of War

Civilian populations, being unarmed, offer little to no resistance to an armed and trained military force. In addition, the theater of operations also often takes account of their homes.

Armed conflict has a particular effect on certain groups of people because of their special needs, mainly, women , children and the elderly.

Even when hostilities have ceased, the environmental disaster or broken infrastructures leave civilians in a desperate state of need where they are particularly susceptible to famine and disease. Wounded, and sometimes mutilated populations try to find missing relatives and rebuild their lives. In certain countries, civilians remain vulnerable many years after the conflict has ceased due to explosive remnants of war.

In the event of conflict, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains as much proximity and contact with the civilian population as possible. It makes representations to the relevant authorities to prevent or put an end to violations of humanitarian law, and to protect the life, health and dignity of civilians and to ensure that the consequences of the conflict do not compromise their future.

Legal considerations

The 1949 Geneva Conventions seek to alleviate the suffering of both combatants and noncombatants during armed conflicts, together with extended protections offered by the two Additional Protocols. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the principal humanitarian organization carrying out many of the relief activities for victims of armed conflicts. The ICRC's work in connection with international armed conflicts is based on the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocol Additional I of 1977, which give it the right to carry out specific activities such as assisting the wounded as well as sick or shipwrecked, visiting prisoners of war and providing aid for civilians. In situations of civil war, too, the ICRC is entitled under article 3 of the Geneva Conventions to offer its services to the warring parties, under strict impartiality and neutrality.

Protection of civilians is a basic principle of humanitarian law. Civilians who do not take part in hostilities must not be attacked and must be spared and protected. The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977 contain specific rules to protect civilians. In situations that are not covered by these treaties, civilians are protected by the fundamental principles of humanitarian law and human rights law, as reflected by the Martens clause.

The basic rules of humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians are listed below:

  • Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.

  • There is to be no destruction of property unless justified by military necessity.
  • Individuals or groups must not be deported, regardless of motive.
  • Civilians must not be used as hostages.
  • Civilians must not be subject to outrages upon personal dignity.
  • Civilians must not be tortured, raped or enslaved.
  • Civilians must not be subject to collective punishment and reprisals.
  • Civilians must not receive differential treatment based on race, religion, nationality, or political allegiance.
  • Parties to the hostilities must not use or develop biological or chemical weapons and must not allow children under 15 to participate in hostilities or to be recruited into the armed forces.
All content copyright © 2006-2011