The ICRC’s mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and other situations of violence, and to provide them with assistance. One way in which the ICRC does this is by ensuring respect for the rights of affected people. This involves reminding the authorities and others of their legal obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law.

In this blog post, we bring to you a simple interpretation of IHL — what it is, where it originated, its provisions, and where it applies — to make you familiar with the rules of war that protect non-participants, prisoners and the wounded in conflicts and other situations of violence.

We also bring to you a lecture by Charles Sabga, regional legal adviser, ICRC regional delegation for India, Bhutan and the Maldives, on the Gaza conflict from an IHL perspective. Mr Sabga recently delivered the lecture, entitled ‘Humanitarian crisis in Gaza: Hope, despair and what lies ahead,‘ at the Indian Society of International Law, New Delhi.

What is international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law 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. IHL is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict. International humanitarian law 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.

Where did IHL originate?

IHL is rooted in the rules of ancient civilisations and religions – 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. These rules strike a careful balance between humanitarian concerns and the military requirements of States. As the international community has grown, an increasing number of States have contributed to the development of those rules. International humanitarian law forms today a universal body of law.

Where is international humanitarian law to be found?

A major part of IHL is contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Nearly every State in the world has agreed to be bound by them. The Conventions have been developed and supplemented by two further agreements: the Additional Protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts. Other agreements prohibit the use of certain weapons and military tactics and protect certain categories of people and goods.

These Agreements include the:

  • 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, plus its two protocols;
  • 1972 Biological Weapons Convention;
  • 1980 Conventional
  • Weapons Convention and its five protocols;
  • 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention;
  • 1997 Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines; and
  • 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Many provisions of IHL are now accepted as customary law – that is, as general rules by which all States are bound.

When does international humanitarian law apply?

IHL applies only to armed conflict. It does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. It 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. It is important to differentiate between IHL and International Human Rights Law. While some of their rules are similar, these two bodies of law have developed separately and are contained in different treaties. In particular, International Human Rights Law – unlike IHL – applies in peacetime, and some of its provisions may be suspended during an armed conflict.

Humanitarian crisis in Gaza: hope, despair and what lies ahead: Charles Sabga, Regional Legal Adviser delivers a lecture at ISIL

The Indian Society of International Law (ISIL), New Delhi, organizes monthly discussions on contemporary issues concerning international law. For the month of September, the ISIL invited Charles Sabga, regional legal adviser, ICRC regional delegation for India, Bhutan and the Maldives, to deliver a talk on 5 September.

Given his area of expertise and the ICRC’s contribution to the subject, Mr. Sabga was requested to discuss the Gaza conflict from the perspective of humanitarian law. In his lecture entitled ‘Humanitarian crisis in Gaza: Hope, despair and what lies ahead,’ Mr. Sabga analysed the humanitarian legal framework.

The analysis was well received and was followed by a Q&A session. The audience, comprising students, scholars and members of the ISIL, legal practitioners and serving and retired members of the Government of India, posed a variety of questions, all which were adequately discussed and addressed.


Rules of war (In a nutshell)

Respect for IHL

Contemporary challenges for IHL

IHL and human rights

ICRC New Delhi