International Humanitarian Law

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  • Topic: Geneva Conventions, Laws of war, International law
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5.1 The Basics of International Humanitarian Law[1]

What is international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law (IHL) 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 by prohibiting weapons that make no distinction between combatants and civilians or weapons and methods of warfare which cause unnecessary injury, suffering and/or damage. IHL is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

Humanitarian law has therefore banned the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons and anti-personnel mines.

IHL 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.

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

Why did international humanitarian law originate?

IHL is rooted in the rules of ancient civilizations and religions, and premised on the simple idea that some things are not permitted even in wartime. As such, warfare has always been subject to certain principles and customs.

Universal codification of IHL began in the nineteenth century. Since then, States have agreed to a series of practical rules, based on the bitter experience of modern warfare. Indeed, with each passing century, war has taken a higher toll in human lives with the 20th century being the bloodiest of all. This may be attributed, in part, to the new types of conflict that have emerged (wars of national liberation, guerilla warfare) and to the development of numerous high-performance weapons due to technological progress.

In fact, since the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, war has no longer been an acceptable way to settle differences between States. The UN Charter states clearly that the threat or use of force against other States is unlawful. But it does not prohibit the use of force under three specific circumstances. In brief, they are (1) situations where a State has to defend itself, individually or collectively, against attacks on its independence or territory, in response to a (legal or illegal) use of force; (2) internal armed conflicts (or civil wars); and (3) Security Council actions taken under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Accordingly, a clear need existed for international rules that limit the effects of war on people and property, and protect certain particularly vulnerable groups of persons.

What are the basic rules of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts?

Persons hors de combat and those who do not take a direct part in hostilities are entitled to respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity. They shall in all circumstances be protected and treated humanely without any adverse distinction.

It is forbidden to kill or injure an enemy who surrenders or who is hors de combat.

The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Protection also covers medical personnel, establishments, transports and equipment. The emblem of the red cross or the red crescent is the sign of such protection and must be respected.

Captured combatants and civilians under the authority of an adverse party are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions. They shall be protected against all acts of violence and reprisals, and have the right to correspond with...
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