International humanitarian law is a set of rules intended for humanitarian reasons to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects those who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. This guide outlines the key documents related to the main international humanitarian law treaties, with links to the text of the treaties themselves as well as preparatory documents and commentaries.
International humanitarian law sets out categories of people and through treaties grants them specific rights and protections, which account for how exposed they are to the risks of a conflict or their particular vulnerability
Law of Geneva
The “law of Geneva” is the set of rules protecting war victims, i.e. people who do not or no longer take part in hostilities in accordance with the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants.
Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols set out the essential rules of international humanitarian law by protecting people not taking part in hostilities (civilians, medical or religious personnel, employees of humanitarian organizations) or no longer taking part (the wounded, sick or shipwrecked, prisoners of war). They have been universally ratified.
The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 concern, respectively, the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field, the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians in times of war. Article 3 common to the four conventions extended the scope of international humanitarian law to non-international armed conflicts, a breakthrough in the field.
The two Additional Protocols of 1977 bolster the protection afforded to victims of international and non-international armed conflicts. Protocol II is the first international legal instrument devoted wholly to non-international armed conflicts.
Protocol III of 2005 concerns the adoption of an additional distinctive emblem, the red crystal and grants it the same international status as the emblems of the red cross and red crescent.
International humanitarian law gives children general protection as civilians in armed conflict. In addition, because of their particular vulnerability, children are afforded special additional protection.
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989
The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the fundamental rights of the child – civil, political, economic, social and cultural. It was adopted by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 44/25 on 20 November 1989 in New York and entered into force on 2 September 1990. Article 38 of the convention deals with children in armed conflict, including their participation in hostilities.
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2000
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the involvement of children in armed conflict, aims to protect children from being recruited and participating in hostilities, and accounts for their particular vulnerability by granting them specific protection. The protocol was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 May 2000 in New York and entered into force on 12 February 2002.
Enforced disappearance is the arrest, detention or abduction of a person against their will by agents of the state and the subsequent concealment of their fate, thus denying them legal protection. Widespread or systematic enforced disappearances are a crime against humanity.
International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance was the first open treaty to define enforced disappearance as a human rights violation and prohibit it. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 December 2006 in New York and entered into force on 23 December 2010.
The means and methods of warfare are not unlimited. A set of rules prohibits or restricts how weapons may be used or hostilities conducted (the methods of warfare), and prohibits or regulates the development, possession and use of certain weapons (the means of warfare).
Law of The Hague
The law of The Hague is the law of war in the strict sense of the term jus in bello, i.e. the body of rules governing how warfare is conducted. The provisions and annexed regulations of the two Hague Conventions are part of customary international law and are therefore binding on all states, even those which have not ratified them.
Hague Convention (II) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 1899
The Hague Convention II of 1899 The Martens Clause was introduced for the first time in the preamble. The Convention was adopted on 29 July 1899 at The Hague during the International Peace Conference. The conference was convened to revise the International Declaration concerning the Laws and Customs of War of 1874, which had been drafted in Brussels but never ratified. It came into force on 4 September 1900.
Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws ond Customs of War on Land, 1907
The Hague Convention IV of 1907 revises and supplements the provisions adopted at the time of the 1899 convention, although there are only slight differences between the two versions. It was adopted on 18 October 1907 at The Hague during the Second International Peace Conference and entered into force on 26 January 1910. A third conference was to be held in 1915 but never took place owing to the outbreak of the First World War.
Nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical weapons
Nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical weapons are unconventional weapons. Owing to their uncontrollable effects, they are often called weapons of mass destruction, but the term has no real definition under international humanitarian law.
Geneva Protocol on Asphyxiating Gases and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, 1925
The Geneva Protocol of 1925 was the very first international text prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons. It was drafted and ratified at the Convention for the Supervision of the International Trade in Arms and Ammunition and in Implements of War. The convention was held from 4 May to 17 June 1925 in Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations, following a French proposal to draft a protocol prohibiting the use of asphyxiating gases and a Polish proposal to add a ban on bacteriological (biological) weapons. It entered into force on 8 February 1928.
The protocol bans the use of such weapons but does not prohibit their development, production or possession.
Biological Weapons Convention, 1972
The Biological Weapons Convention fills the gaps in the Geneva Protocol of 1925 by prohibiting not just the use but the production and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons. It is the first international disarmament treaty to ban an entire category of weapons. The convention was drafted by the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament on 16 December 1971 in New York and opened for signature on 10 April 1972. It entered into force on 26 March 1975.
Chemical Weapons Convention, 1993
The Chemical Weapons Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and stipulates for the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities along with the weapons themselves. It was negotiated by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva between 1972 and 1992. It was adopted on 13 January 1993 in Paris and entered into force on 29 April 1997.
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2017
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons prohibits nuclear weapons with a view to their total elimination. It was adopted in New York at the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading to their Total Elimination on 7 July 2017, and entered into force on 22 January 2021.
Conventional weapons are all weapons except nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological ones. For convenience, this guide separates explosive weapons from weapons covered by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its Additional Protocols.
Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, 1997
The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and stipulates for their destruction. It was adopted on 18 September 1997, at the Oslo Diplomatic Conference on an International Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Land Mines, and entered into force on 1 March 1999.
Convention on Cluster Munitions, 2008
The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions and stipulates for their destruction. It was adopted at the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on 30 May 2008 and entered into force on 1 August 2010.
CCW and Additional Protocols
Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), 1980
The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) aims to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons that may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. It was adopted on 10 October 1980 at the United Nations conference of the same name. It entered into force on 2 December 1983. Article 1 was amended on 21 December 2001 to broaden the scope of application. Note that the convention is only a framework agreement with general provisions, supplemented by its protocols.
Protocol (I) to the CCW on Non-Detectable Fragments, 1980
Protocol I to the CCW supplements the convention by prohibiting the use of any weapon whose primary effect is to cause injury by shrapnel not detectable in the human body by X-ray. It was adopted in Geneva on 10 October 1980 by the United Nations conference bearing the same name as the convention and entered into force on 2 December 1983.
Protocol (II) to the CCW on Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices, 1980
Protocol II supplements the CCW by prohibiting the use of mines, booby-traps and other devices. It was adopted in Geneva on 10 October 1980 by the United Nations conference bearing the same name as the convention and entered into force on 2 December 1983. A revised version was adopted on 3 May 1996 and entered into force on 3 December 1998.
Protocol (III) to the CCW on Incendiary Weapons, 1980
Protocol III supplements the CCW by prohibiting incendiary weapons. It was adopted in Geneva on 10 October 1980 by the United Nations conference bearing the same name as the convention and entered into force on 2 December 1983.
Protocol (IV) to the CCW on Blinding Laser Weapons, 1995
Protocol IV supplements the CCW by prohibiting the use of laser weapons whose combat function is to cause permanent blindness in people with unenhanced vision. It was adopted in Vienna on 13 October 1995 by the First Review Conference of the CCW and entered into force on 30 September 1998.
Protocol (V) to the CCW on Explosive Remnants of War, 2003
Protocol V supplements the CCW by addressing the issue of explosive remnants of war in order to reduce the risks associated with such weapons after armed conflict is over. It was adopted in Geneva on 28 November 2003 at a meeting of the states party to the CCW and entered into force on 12 December 2006.
Arms Trade Treaty, 2013
The Arms Trade Treaty regulates the international trade in conventional arms by setting out binding common standards. It was adopted in New York by the United Nations General Assembly on 2 April 2013 and entered into force on 24 December 2014.
International humanitarian law affords protection to civilian objects by generally prohibiting acts of violence, attacks or reprisals against them. Attacks on civilian objects must be strictly limited to military objectives.
Cultural property is the movable and immovable property that makes up mankind’s cultural and spiritual heritage. It is protected under international law and must therefore be safeguarded against the foreseeable effects of armed conflict. Intentional attacking cultural property during an armed conflict is a war crime.
Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, 1954
The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property is the first international treaty dealing exclusively with the protection of cultural property during armed conflicts. It was drafted at The Hague at an intergovernmental conference convened by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It was adopted on 14 May 1954 and entered into force on 7 August 1956.
The convention, which permits attacks on cultural property of “imperative military necessity”, was adopted before the 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions, which specify that only military objectives may be attacked. It has been supplemented by two Additional Protocols.
Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, 1954
The First Hague Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property bans the export of cultural property from occupied territory and provides for the restitution of illegally exported objects. It was drafted and adopted at the same time as the convention. The protocol’s provisions are separate from the convention because of the difficulty, for certain governments, of adopting provisions around the restitution of illegally exported objects.
Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, 1999
The Second Hague Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property was adopted in 1999 to supplement the then-outdated convention. It provides for enhanced protection for cultural property of the greatest importance to humanity, which is conferred by the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The protocol defines five grave violations of its provisions for which individual criminal responsibility applies. It also extends the scope of application to non-international armed conflicts. It was adopted on 26 March 1999 at the diplomatic conference on a draft second protocol and entered into force on 9 March 2004.
By extension of the protection afforded to civilian objects, the protection of the natural environment is one of the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law. The civilian population cannot be adequately protected from the effects of armed conflicts if the natural environment they depend on for their livelihood is destroyed, contaminated or seriously damaged by military operations.
Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), 1976
The Environmental Modification Convention is part of the disarmament framework in that it prohibits the use of environmental modification techniques for military or hostile purposes. The convention was adopted in New York by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 31/72 on 10 December 1976. It was opened for signature on 18 May 1977 and entered into force on 5 October 1978.
Criminal repression refers to the punishment of graves breaches and is a means of ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law in times of armed conflict.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948
The Genocide Convention was the first legal instrument to codify the crime of genocide and one of the first United Nations conventions to address humanitarian issues, a response to the atrocities committed during World War II. It was adopted in New York on 9 December 1948 following United Nations General Assembly Resolution 108(II) of 21 December 1947. The convention entered into force on 12 January 1951.
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998
The Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over alleged perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. It was adopted in Rome on 17 July 1998, at a diplomatic conference convened by the United Nations, and entered into force on 1 July 2002.
Article 8, on war crimes, has been amended several times to extend its scope to non-international armed conflicts, biological weapons, non-detectable fragments, blinding laser weapons, and intentionally starving civilians. Article 124 – which contained a transitional provision allowing a state to reject the Court’s jurisdiction over war crimes for seven years after becoming a state party – was amended to delete the provision.
Finally, the Rome Statute was amended to add articles 8bis, 15bis and 15ter, on the crime of aggression.
 On the webpages with the text of the treaties, you will also find information on their ratification. Preparatory documents record the work carried out before the treaty was adopted. “Literature” links lead to a catalogue of the academic literature on the topic available in the ICRC library.