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International Human Rights Law 101: What Is International Humanitarian Law?


The international arena is defined by norms that govern the manner in which both state and non-state actors perform. The seeming everyday ubiquity of such norms, though, can make them quite difficult to define. One of these concepts is international human rights, often touted yet rarely fully defined, which governs how politicians form policies, craft rhetoric, and engage in diplomacy with other states. This International Human Rights Law 101 series helps to provide the reader several useful historical and contemporary definitions to better understand the concept, along with several tools of analysis to examine modern case studies. Therefore, this 101 series is comprised of seven different articles which help to contextualize international human rights and the laws it governs, in both a historical and contemporary context.

The International Human Rights Law 101 series is therefore divided into seven parts:

1. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Human Rights Law?

2. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Humanitarian Law?

3. International Human Rights Law 101: The United Nations

4. International Human Rights Law 101: The International Court of Justice

5. International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights in Bosnian War

6. International Human Rights Law 101: A Way Forward and Conclusions

Figure 1: A series of internationally recognized humanitarian symbols, such as the Red Cross.

What is international humanitarian law? As discussed in the previous article, international human rights law is primarily concerned with protecting the human rights of people globally - including inherent rights to religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to vote. Often, these values are codified into law and are specifically defined based on shared liberal values such as dignity and equality. International humanitarian law, therefore, is an extension of this sacredness of life present within the larger canon of human rights. It can be succinctly defined as “a set of rules that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict” (War & Law, 2022), protecting civilians and other people not participating within the conflict itself. Additionally, this area of law seeks to restrict both the means and methods of warfare itself, limiting the specific military tactics and weapons a participant can potentially use in a conflict. Protecting those who are not directly involved in fighting, such as civilians and medical personnel, also extends to those whom have ceased to fight. A large portion of international humanitarian law is dedicated to the protection of wounded combatants and prisoners of war. In this manner, international humanitarian law refers back to the intrinsic dignity and worth of persons codified within human rights - arguing that these categories of people are “entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and mental integrity, … enjoy[ing] legal guarantees” which undergirds this concept of protection and humane treatment (Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, 2004). With the aim to mitigate human suffering and recognizing the sanctity of life, international humanitarian law codifies these tenets into conventions for states to follow. The following section of this article focuses on a brief summary of each convention in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their radical influence on how states conceptualize their own actions in war.

Figure 2: The International Red Cross Committee discussing concerns with a member of the Peruvian Armed Forces.

What are the Geneva Conventions? First ratified in 1949, the Geneva Conventions (a series of international treaties that were concluded between 1894 and 1949) form the crux of how to operate in international humanitarian law, providing states with several key tenets on how to conduct themselves during armed conflicts. Those who breach these measures must be found and tried, or extradited to the state in question to await a criminal investigation. The First Convention contains 64 different articles which provide protection for the wounded and sick in war, along with medical and religious personnel on the ground. It additionally recognizes the construction of hospital zones, along with identity cards and distinctive emblems (for example, the iconic Red Cross of the International Committee of the Red Cross) in which to easily identify non-combatant roles (ICRC Convention I). The Second Convention provides protections for those at sea - including the sick, wounded, and shipwrecked. It also must be noted the specific protection for hospital ships and other medical transport equipment enshrined within these 63 articles, along with the medical personnel working on these ships (ICRC Convention II). The Third Convention specifically defines who exactly counts as a prisoner of war, broadening the category even further to define places and conditions of those in captivity and the labor in which they are to be subjected. Finally, this Convention “establishes the principle that prisoners of war must be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities” (ICRC Convention III). In this manner, the definition of prisoner of war would be given an explicitly defined status, along with the rights and protections guaranteed to them during their imprisonment and eventual release.

Finally, the Fourth Convention concerns itself solely with the status of civilians in occupied territories and during times of conflict. Taking into account the relative lack of protections for civilians during the events of World War II, this Convention “deals with the status and treatment of protected persons, distinguishing between… the obligations of the Occupying Power vis-a-vis the civilian population”, along with the specific provisions regarding humanitarian relief, civilian internees, and establishment of safety zones (The Geneva Conventions of 1949, 2020). Often, the Fourth Convention is the most widely known in the international system due to its heavy focus on the protection of civilians.

Figure 3: A photograph of the drafters of the Geneva Conventions collaborating.

Additional protocols would be later added in the following decades due to the surge in civil wars and state conflicts, protecting both international and non-international victims of conflict and placing even more limits on conduct during war (The Geneva Conventions of 1949, 2020). These limits would include the ban of many weapons, including chemical and biological ones, which do not discriminate between legitimate enemy targets and civilians and therefore cause disproportionate harm and suffering on both the human and environmental level (Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, 2004).

As alluded previously, the Geneva Conventions marked a revolution in the manner in which the international system conceptualized the existence of war. It would redefine the way states defined prisoners of war and civilian populations, holding those accountable if they were to not follow the recommendations provided in the articles. Those whom would breach the measures included in the Geneva Conventions would be held criminally accountable for their actions, thereby serving as a deterrent method for non-compliant states.

How to classify an armed conflict?

Despite this, the Geneva Conventions mainly serve to contextualize the actions of international armed conflicts (referred to as IACs). Article 2 common to the Geneva Conventions defines IACs as “all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties”, thereby restricting such international conflicts as solely between two or more states. Meanwhile, a non-international armed conflict (referred to as NIACs) is negatively defined as “an armed conflict not of an international character” and may therefore include non-state combatants such as terrorist groups or interstate factions (International humanitarian law, 2018).

The repercussions of such definitions are troublesome. If a state enters a conflict with a non-state actor, such as a terrorist group, the Geneva Conventions would therefore classify it as an NIAC. Despite the human and environmental toll such a conflict could potentially cause, precisely because this hypothetical conflict is not internationally defined, the treaty rules applicable are under 30. Compared to the almost 600 treaty rules within the Geneva Conventions which are applicable to IACs, a considerable imbalance in potential guidance immediately becomes immediately apparent.

Figure 4: A regimen of armed soldiers.

Recognizing the increasing commonality of civil wars as compared to traditional international armed conflicts between states within the international system, the Geneva Conventions are therefore not the sole arbiter of guidance in humanitarian conflicts. Many other avenues exist for states to seek guidance beyond the Conventions. The following article in this 101 series examines the vital role of the United Nations in both historical and contemporary contexts of international human rights, recognizing the fact that a wealth of international organizations exist beyond the Geneva Conventions.

In conclusion, though international humanitarian law takes certain influence from the historical development of human rights, it is vital to note the narrower breadth of scope. Primarily, international humanitarian law devotes itself to both the protection of civilians and the restriction of certain tactics of war. These norms are further expounded with the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, a series of several tenets which protect the wounded on both land and sea, prisoners of war, and noncombatants. The primary sanctity of life and the desire to limit as much suffering as possible speaks to a more fundamental belief in the inherent dignity and worth of a human being, cemented within international human rights. Bibliographical references: Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law. (2004). What is international humanitarian law? ICRC. Retrieved from ICRC. (n.d.). Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Treaties, states parties, and commentaries . Retrieved from ICRC. (n.d.). Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Treaties, states parties, and commentaries. Retrieved from

ICRC. (n.d.). Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Treaties, states parties, and commentaries . Retrieved from International humanitarian law. International Justice Resource Center. (2018, February 15). Retrieved from

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their additional Protocols. International Committee of the Red Cross. (2020, November 30). Retrieved from

War & Law. International Committee of the Red Cross. (2022, February 11). Retrieved from

Image References: Figure 1: Perez, J. (2016). The 4th Universal Meeting of National Committees and Similar Bodies on IHL will take place in Geneva from November 30th to December 2nd, 2016. [Photograph]. Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog. Retrieved from Figure 2: Heger, B. (2018). The ICRC shares its humanitarian concerns with the Armed Forces about the clashes that take place in the valley of the rivers Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro at the Canaire, military base in Peru. [Photograph]. Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog. Retrieved from Figure 3: Anonymous. (2022). Revisiting the history of the Geneva Conventions. [Photograph]. Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog. Retrieved from Figure 4: Anonymous. (2022). Joint Symposium with Armed Groups and International Law on Compliance in Armed Conflict. [Photograph]. OpinioJuris. Retrieved from

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Dana Kit

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