What do you know about the basics of international humanitarian law?

Topics: Worldwide, International Humanitarian Law
August 30, 2012

What do you know about the basics of international humanitarian law?

Since the signing of the First Geneva Convention in 1864, international humanitarian law has protected people living in or affected by territories that are mired in armed conflict. Educational programs like Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) offered through the Canadian Red Cross aim to increase awareness of the law and its significance during international conflicts.

Just what is international humanitarian law? The basic tenets of the law focus on drawing distinctions between civilians and combatants in hostile situations, ensuring that each are treated humanely, that weapons are used to weaken rival forces rather than for mass destruction and that vulnerable persons are afforded additional protections following the outbreak of war.

The law goes into effect when armed conflict occurs in an area, does not apply to isolated acts of violence or disturbances, and can apply to international and non-international incidents. The former involves war between two or more states, while the latter pertains to conflict within a country between fighting groups or dissidents. 

Attacking civilians and homes, places of worship, or cultural sites attended by civilians is strictly prohibited under the law. In addition, cruelty and forms of physical and sexual violence can be construed as violations of international humanitarian law. If combatants are captured while wounded or sick, international humanitarian law demands that efforts be made to provide medical care, as well as essentials like food, water, shelter and clothing.

For those suspected of violating the law, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has the ability to investigate and try persons suspected of major crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and other misdeeds. Established in July 2002, the ICC strives to defend the rights of those who have suffered from cruelty or violence and bring those who violate international humanitarian law to justice in sight of the global community.

As a valuable stopgap against the horrors of war, international humanitarian law has nonetheless been subject to challenges in recent years. The landscape of war and the nature of armed conflict has altered drastically since the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the two Additional Protocols of 1977, complicating the application of the law in some territories.

It may not seem like it, but the effects of international humanitarian law can also be felt within your community. If you have neighbours or relatives who work for a non-governmental organization abroad or a group that delivers humanitarian aid like the Red Cross, he or she is offered protections under the rules of war that could make a significant difference.

While states have the responsibility to educate citizens about the importance of international humanitarian law, a program like EHL, which offers a virtual campus, introduces young people to the basic aspects of the law and may empower them to pursue a career or volunteer opportunity that brings valuable humanitarian aid to those in need. Educators can visit the EHL website to access a wealth of instructional materials, including videos, workshops and learning modules.