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An Outline of International Humanitarian Law

Armand-Dumaresq (1964). The signing of the Geneva Convention [painting]

International Humanitarian Law is a branch of international law, focused solely on regulating the behaviour and actions of combatants as well as the means and methods they use to achieve their objectives (ICRC, 2004). Alternatively named the law of war, its purpose is simple, i.e. to limit the use of violence and suffering inflicted, and to protect the lives of people that are not directly involved in the conflict but are affected by it. Its implementation in practice, however, has proven to be much more complex. IHL is mostly contained in the Geneva Conventions, which were signed in 1949, and their Additional Protocols of 1977. The Conventions protect those who are not combatants, meaning the citizens, medical aid personnel, and aid workers, and those who cannot fight anymore, i. e. the injured or detained. Protection implies that their physical and mental health must be respected at all times, as is stated in all the Geneva Conventions. IHL applies to all parties involved in the conflict, regardless of who began the attack.

There are four Geneva Conventions, the first protecting the wounded and sick soldiers on land, while the second protects the wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea. The third Convention contains provisions for the protection of prisoners of war, while civilians, even those in occupied territories, are protected by the fourth Geneva Convention. The Additional Protocols reinforce the protection of non-combatant victims in international conflicts (Protocol I) and non-international conflicts (Protocol II). All persons captured by enemies must be cared for: murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, humiliating, while degrading treatment, the taking of hostages, and unfair trial are prohibited in an absolute manner (ICRC, 2014).

The diplomatic conference for the revision of the Geneva Conventions held in Switzerland (1949, August 12). Photo copyright: ICRC Archives/J. Cadoux [photo]

Protocol I contains provisions that are singularly applicable in times of international conflicts, while Protocol II is applicable in non-international armed conflicts. Their existence alludes to the fact that conflicts have historically been distinguished as international and non-international. International armed conflicts are usually disputes between two or more sovereign states. When a nation sends troops in another state to support a local group's use of force, it is similarly considered an international conflict. Cases of colonial occupation or racist regimes, where people are fighting against a dictator and are exercising their right of self-determination, are also regulated by Protocol I. (GCs common Art 2(1)(2)). Non-international armed conflicts take place within a single state, either between a government and an armed group or between armed groups. In order to be characterized as such, high levels of violence and organization should be demonstrated by all parties. Otherwise, they will be deemed as internal disturbances and tensions (GC common Article 3, APII Art 1). Common Article 3, an article present in all Geneva Conventions, focuses on conflicts of intra-state nature, that have been more frequent to arise in the last few decades. It contains all the essential rules of all Geneva Conventions and makes them relevant to internal armed conflicts.

International humanitarian law also governs the choice of weapons and military tactics, and prohibits or restricts the use of certain weapons with a few disarmament treaties. Biological and toxin weapons are banned (Biological Weapons Convention,1972). Conventional weapons that would cause indiscriminate, unjustifiable, and