International Humanitarian Law


International humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seeks to limit the effect of armed conflicts for humanitarian reasons. It is also known as the “law of war” or “the law of arms conflict”.  It is a part of international law, the body of rules governing relations between states. It applies to the armed forces. International Humanitarian Law is rooted in the rules of ancient civilizations and religion.


Universal codification of humanitarian law began in the 19th century. Since then states had agreed on a series of practical laws based on the bitter experience of modern warfare. As the international community has grounded and the increasing number of states have contributed to the development of those rules. A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva conventions of 1949. Merely every state in the world has agreed to be bound by them.

Development of International Humanitarian Law: 

The convention has been developed and supplemented by two further agreements which are basically additional protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims and armed conflicts.

It protects people who are not and are no longer participating in hostilities and restrict the means and methods of warfare. It protects the people who don’t participate in the fighting, such as civilians and medical and religious military personnel. It also protects those who ceased to take parts, such as wounded, shipwrecks, and sick combatants, and prisoners of war.

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More specifically under the International Humanitarian Law, it is forbidden to kill or wound any enemy who surrenders or is unable to fight, the sick or wounded must be collected and cared for by the party in whose power they find themselves.  This Law also says that medical personnel, supplies, hospitals, and ambulances must all be protected.


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

The law sets out a number of clearly recognizable symbols that can be used to identify protected people places and objects. The main emblems are the red cross, the red crescent, and the symbols identifying the cultural property and civil defense facilities.

International humanitarian law prohibits all means and methods of warfare that fails to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those such as civilians who are not. All those methods are banned which cause unnecessary suffering, or cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.

Use of any weapon including exploding bullets, chemical or biological weapons, building laser weapons, and anti-personnel mines are banned. The agreements which prohibit the use of certain weapons and military tactics include the 1954 convention for the protection of Cultural Property in event of armed conflict, plus its two protocols.

Protocols and conventions: 

The 1972 biological convention, the 1980 conventional weapons convention, and its five protocols, and the 1993 chemical weapons convention. The 1997 Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines. The 2000 optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Many provisions of international humanitarian law are now accepted as customary law.

It is very important to know that the International Humanitarian Law only applies to armed conflicts, it does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. The law applies only once a conflict had begun and then equally to all sides regardless of who starts a fight. International Humanitarian Law distinguishes international and non-international armed conflicts.

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International Humanitarian Law covers two areas one is the protection of those who are not or no longer taking part in the fight, and the other is restrictions on the means of warfare, in particular weapons and the methods of warfare.

Application of International Humanitarian Law: 

International humanitarian law applies only to armed conflict; it does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. The law applies only once a conflict has begun, and then equally to all sides regardless of who started the fighting. International humanitarian law distinguishes between international and 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.

Restrictions on weapons: 

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, blinding laser weapons and anti-personnel mines.

Implementation of International Humanitarian Law:

Measures must be taken to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. States have an obligation to teach its rules to their armed forces and the general public. They must prevent violations or punish them if these nevertheless occur. In particular, they must enact laws to punish the most serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, which are regarded as war crimes.

The States must also pass laws protecting the Red cross and red crescent emblems.

Measures have also been taken at an international level: tribunals have been created to punish acts committed in two recent conflicts (the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda). An international criminal court, with the responsibility of repressing inter alia war crimes, was created by the 1998 Rome Statute. Whether as individuals or through governments and various organizations, we can all make an important contribution to compliance
with international humanitarian law.

This Article is written by Ms. Mahnoor, who is studying International Relations at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. She is interested in Diplomacy and international law. 

International Humanitarian Law

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