The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is an impartial, neutral and independent organization. Its exclusively humanitarian mandate is to assist and protect victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, and to promote International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – otherwise known as the “law of war” or the “law of armed conflict” – which regulates the means and methods of warfare. Today, the core of IHL is comprised of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which have achieved universal ratification, their Additional Protocols, and customary IHL. But warfare has always been subject to certain principles and customs, and IHL is built on this legacy of religious and philosophical traditions.
Since the earliest times people have set rules to regulate the conduct of war and lessen its suffering. Religious values and doctrines have also long inspired humanitarian action, and charity is an essential part of all major religions. With this in mind, the ICRC collaborates with religious circles around the world to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action, to explore correspondences between IHL and religious principles, and to learn how religious and philosophical traditions can contribute to regulating and reducing suffering during armed conflict on their own terms.
The principles of IHL are based on humanitarian principles that are ultimately rooted in the world’s religious traditions, and the role of religious leaders and institutions in promoting common humanitarian principles is therefore crucial. In times of war and crisis, religious networks play a vital role in carrying out and facilitating humanitarian action, and it is imperative that humanitarian actors strengthen their religious and cultural literacy in order to effectively engage and cooperate with them, developing the mutual trust required to sustain humanitarian action.
For these reasons, the ICRC has systematically engaged and collaborated with religious circles for many years to seek advice and learn from them about the local context, as well as to develop effective humanitarian coordination and partnerships. Indeed, religious communities have been carrying out humanitarian action for far longer than other humanitarian actors, and comprise vast networks of religious, educational and charitable institutions throughout the world.
Since the ICRC has a mandate to promote IHL, it has also long reached out to academics and religious scholars in order to explore correspondences between IHL and other traditions, the aim being to learn from each other and encourage debate on key issues. While there is a great deal of common ground, the differences between IHL and various religious traditions are sometimes as important as the similarities, and offer insights into how IHL might be further developed and improved.
Beyond the confines of the law, the realm of ethics and religion taps into people’s identities and underlying motivations in a way that IHL cannot, and religious leaders can often provide spiritual and psychological support to affected communities more effectively than humanitarian outsiders. Indeed, humanitarian action is not limited to alleviating physical suffering and protecting the lives and dignity of those in need, it also demands respect for their cultural and religious sensitivities.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
International humanitarian law is a set of rules that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects people who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.
For more information on IHL, the ICRC Resource Centre on our website, in particular the war and law page, is an invaluable resource, containing everything from introductory material to the full texts and commentaries of the Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocols and other instruments. Meanwhile, here are a brief factsheet on IHL, a five-minute film, and a comprehensive introductory book on IHL. Many more factsheets on IHL and related subjects can be accessed here. Please do not hesitate to contact us for further information.
At the bottom of the page you will also find links to the ICRC’s Law and Policy blog and other relevant resources.
We invite anyone interested in the subject or working in this field to contribute articles, videos, presentations and other material to this platform in any language. This site is a constant work in process and content thus far is not reflective in any way of the diversity of religions and other traditions. Please do not hesitate to contact us regarding any suggestions or questions that you might have: firstname.lastname@example.org
The ICRC Global Affairs Team
Notably, although hosted by the ICRC, this website may not be interpreted as positioning the ICRC in any way, and its content does not amount to formal policy or doctrine, unless specifically indicated as such.