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Understanding IHL

What is IHL? When does it apply? Is IHL different from human rights law? Who has responsibilities under IHL?

International Humanitarian Law: The regulation of armed conflict

International humanitarian law (IHL) outlines the limitations, restrictions and prohibitions of parties engaged in armed conflict, both international and non-international. While IHL does not prohibit all violence, it does seek to limit the harm and violence caused during situations of conflict. 

Six things to remember about IHL

IHL only applies during armed conflict;

IHL does not decide on the legality of a conflict;

IHL is based on a balance between humanitarian and military considerations;

 IHL does not prohibit all violence;

The central modern conventions of IHL are the Geneva Conventions of 1949;

In general, international armed conflict - conflicts between states - is much more heaviliy regulated that internal or non-international armed conflict.

IHL as a branch of public international law

IHL is a branch of public international law. Public international law (law of nations) is a combination of rules and customs governing the relations between states in different fields, such as armed conflict, human rights, the sea, space, trade, territorial boundaries of states, and diplomatic relations. 

Read more about principles of international law.

IHL only applies to armed conflict

IHL applies to armed conflicts only. This includes both international and internal armed conflicts. IHL does not apply in situations of internal disturbances or tensions. Internal disturbances are riots, demonstrations, and isolated, sporadic acts of violence, that take place inside a territory of a state and international human rights law applies in these situations. 

Separation of reasons or lawfulness of the conflict and the rules that apply (jus in bello and jus ad bellum)

It is also important to note that IHL (jus in bello) does not address the legality of an armed conflict (jus ad bellum). IHL treats all parties equally regardless of the reasons for or legality of the conflict. The United Nations sets out the limited situations when a state can resort to force against another state (jus ad bellum); namely in self-defense, or with a Chapter VII authorisation from the Security Council.

Basic principles of IHL

International humanitarian law is based upon the following principles:

  •  the distinction between civilians and combatants;
  • the prohibition of attacks against those hors de combat;
  • the prohibition on the infliction of unnecessary suffering;
  • the principle of necessity;
  • the principle of proportionality;
  • the principle of humanity.

It is important to note that there are limitations to IHL. Given that international humanitarian law does not prohibit the use of violence, it cannot protect all those affected by armed conflict, nor does it try to. It simply seeks to regulate the use of force, and limit the harm caused. 

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, together with the Hague Conventions of 1907 and customary international law, constitute the core of international humanitarian law. To read more, please see the website section Sources of IHL

International human rights law and IHL

IHL and international human rights law (IHRL) are separate, but complementary bodies of public international law. Unlike IHL, IHRL law:

Applies at all times, including during armed conflict;

Some of the protections set forth can be limited during times of armed conflict.

In situations of armed conflict, either body of law may provide more protection, depending on the particular circumstances. In such instances, the rule offering most protection should generally apply. For example, in a situation of occupation, IHL offers more protection against displacement than the IHRL framework, but when dealing with the use of armed violence IHL may be seen as less protective than IHRL.

Compliance with IHL

IHL is not an aspirational body of law. Rather, it contains fundamental standards that must be respected by warring parties during conflict. Unfortunately, in many conflicts across the world the basic standards set out by IHL are not fully adhered to. When such parties fail to respect their obligations it is the duty of the international community to takes steps to ensure compliance. The International Criminal Court can be seen as one mechanism which, by seeking accountability, can help to ensure respect for serious violations of IHL.

For further reading on the challenge to ensure compliance with IHL, see the website section on the enforcement of IHL and the International Committee of the Red Cross background paper, "Improving compliance with International Humanitarian Law".