What is International Humanitarian Law?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 11 February 2020
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International humanitarian law sets guidelines for armed conflict to protect civilians, prisoners of war, and others from unintended harm. These principles govern how wars are fought and outline basic standards that all member nations ratify through treaties. The Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention formalize laws of war, define war crimes, and provide the framework to prosecute war criminals.

In 1864, the first Geneva Convention created a body of law that set protocols for armed conflicts. Subsequent conventions strengthened and amended the rules to regulate military conduct during war time. The Hague Convention recognized the existence of customary international law and provided for international tribunals and international courts to prosecute criminals guilty of genocide and other war crimes.

One of the basic tenets of international humanitarian law is the protection of civilians not directly involved in conflicts. It guarantees medical care for the sick or wounded and defines medical personnel and their equipment as a neutral party. The International Red Cross, for example, is recognized and respected under the law.

Protocols in these treaties also guard against collateral damage to infrastructure necessary for civilian survival. International humanitarian law forbids attacks on crops, housing, and workplaces of people not serving in the military or actively engaged in war. The law grants special protections to women and children during wartime, and sets guidelines to protect religious facilities and environmental resources.


International humanitarian law also regulates the types of weapons used in war. It prohibits chemical and bacterial warfare capable of killing innocent people and destroying food supplies. Landmines are also covered under international treaties that govern war.

Several amendments to the law offered protection to prisoners of war. These treaties permit the detention of military combatants to prevent them from fighting. Prisoners of war must be treated humanely while in custody and cannot be tortured or exposed to mental or physical cruelty. They must be given adequate housing, food, and medical care while being held. At the end of an armed conflict, prisoners of war must be released, according to provisions in international humanitarian law.

These laws also apply to refugees who flee a country or region to escape persecution. Refugees enjoy the same protection as civilians, whether they seek asylum in another country or within the borders of their home country. International humanitarian law ensures refugees are assisted with food, water, and temporary housing. Treaties between countries aim to avoid displacement whenever possible during conflict.

Customary international law covers rules not formalized in treaties. These protocols expand on the expectations of nations during conflicts within countries or between nations. Such laws cover protected zones and independent journalists working in war zones. Customary laws set standards for conduct and the protection of victims of war that formal treaties might lack.


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