International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules which, for humanitarian reasons, seeks to limit the effects of war on people who are not or no longer involved in combat, and restricts the means and methods of warfare that may be used. IHL may also be referred to as “law of war” or “law of armed conflict.”

IHL is a part of international law, which governs relations between nations. International law is born of out agreements between nations (also called treaties or conventions); international custom, established by sovereign practice and recognized as being obligatory; as well as general principles of law. IHL is applied in situations of armed conflict; however, it does not determine whether a nation has or does not have the initial right to resort to force. This is governed by a separate but important part of international law contained in the Charter of the United Nations.


Where does international humanitarian law come from?

The origin of IHL goes back to the rules created by ancient civilizations and religions. Warfare has always been subject to certain laws and customs. The universal codification of IHL started in the 19th century. Since then, nations around the world have agreed to a set of rules, based on the bitter experience of modern warfare, that represent the delicate balance between humanitarian concerns and military requirements. As the international community has grown, an increasing number of countries have contributed to the development of these rules. Today, IHL can be regarded as a truly universal law.


Where can one find international humanitarian law?

IHL originates primarily from the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Today, almost all countries are bound by the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions of 1949 were supplemented by two treaties; two additional protocols were added in 1977 that relate to the protection of victims of armed conflict.

Other texts prohibit the use of some military weapons and tactics, or protect certain categories of people or goods. These measures are particularly enacted by the:

Many rules of IHL are now regarded as pertaining to common law, or as general rules applying to all countries.


When is the humanitarian international law applied?

IHL applies only to armed conflict and does not cover situations of internal tension or internal disturbance, such as isolated acts of violence. It is only applied when conflict escalates, and applies equally to all parties, regardless of which initiated hostilities. The provisions of IHL are dependant on whether the conflict is an international armed conflict, involving at least two countries, or an internal (within one nation) armed conflict. These conflicts are governed by a wide range of regulations, among which are those recorded in the Geneva Conventions and the added Protocols. Conflict within the borders of a single country may involve regular armed forces against armed dissident groups, or armed groups fighting one other. A more limited group of regulations applies to this type of conflict. These are defined in the Common Article 3 in the Geneva Conventions and in the additional Protocol II.

It is important to distinguish between IHL and the law relating to human rights. Although some of the rules are similar, these two branches of international law developed separately and are contained in different treaties. One of the most noticeable differences between the two is that the law relating to human rights is applied in peacetime and a number of its provisions can be suspended during an armed conflict.


What is covered by international humanitarian law?

IHL covers two domains :

  • the protection of people who are not, or are no longer, participating in hostilities ;
  • restrictions in means of waging war, mainly weapons, and to war methods, such as certain military tactics.


What is the “protection”?

IHL protects people who are not participating in hostilities, such as civilians, medical staff or religious clerics. It also protects those who have ceased taking part in hostilities, such as wounded or ill combatants, survivors, as well as prisoners of war. These persons have the right to their life and the right to respect for their physical and moral integrity, and they benefit from judicial guarantees.

They must, in all circumstances, be protected and treated humanely, without any prejudice.

It is forbidden to kill or to hurt an adversary who has surrendered or has ceased fighting. The wounded and sick must be gathered and treated by their captors. Medical personnel and equipment, hospitals and ambulances must be protected. Detailed regulations also govern the detention conditions for prisoners of war, and the treatment given to civilians who are under the authority of the opposing party, which includes in particular their treatment, the provision of medical care, and the right to exchange news with their family.

Moreover, IHL envisages certain distinctive signs that can be employed to identify the protected people, goods and places. It is mainly about emblems of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, as well as distinctive signs of specific to cultural property and civil defence.


What are the restrictions on weapons and military tactics?

Among the means and methods forbidden by IHL are military means and methods which :

  • do not differentiate between combatants and civilians to spare the civilian population, individual civilians, and civilian property ;
  • cause superfluous suffering ;
  • cause serious and lasting damage to the environment.

As a result, IHL has banned the use of many weapons, including exploding bullets, biological and chemical weapons, blinding laser weapons and land mines.


Is IHL really applied?

Unfortunately, there are countless examples of violations of IHL. Increasingly, the victims of war are civilians. However, there are important cases where IHL has been able to effect positive change, by protecting civilians, prisoners of war, the sick and wounded, as well as by limiting the use of inhumane weapons. To the extent that IHL is applied during periods of extreme violence, its respect continuously poses serious difficulties. Nevertheless, it is more important than ever to look after its effective implementation.


How can we better implement international humanitarian law?

Measures must be taken to ensure IHL is respected. Nations have the obligation to teach the rules of IHL to their armed forces and to the general public. They have to warn about and, if necessary, suppress all violations of this law. In order to do this, countries notably have to pass legislation that punishes the most serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and their additional Protocols, now considered to be war crimes. A law assuring the protection of the emblems of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent should be also adopted.

Measures have also been taken on the international front. Two courts were created to punish acts considered war crimes committed in the recent conflicts of the former Yugoslavia as well as Rwanda. Furthermore, an international criminal court, intended to deal with war crimes, was created by the Statute of Rome and adopted in 1998. Whether through government, organizations, or as individuals, we can all contribute to the effective implementation of International Humanitarian Law.


For more information:

Geneva Conventions of 1949(PDF)

Additional protocols of 1977 (Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts) (PDF)

International Humanitarian Law – Treaties & texts (Site of the ICRC)

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in brief (Site of the ICRC)

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