Norms of International Humanitarian Law
Promoting Humanitarian Values:
International humanitarian law is the body of rules, which, in wartime, protect people who are not, or are no longer, participating in hostilities. Its main purpose is to prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict. The rules are not only for governments and their armed forces, but also armed opposition groups and any other parties to a conflict. Following these rules allows everyone to integrate the principle of humanity into conflict.
In times of war, certain humanitarian rules must be observed, even when it comes to the enemy. These rules are set out in the four Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and their two Additional Protocols of June 8, 1977. These treaties form the basic rules of war and armed conflict. Click on the links below to learn more about each - Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocols and basic rules of war.
The Geneva Conventions are founded on the idea of respect for the individual and his/her dignity. Persons not directly taking part in hostilities and those put out of action through sickness, injury, captivity, or any other cause, must be respected and protected against the effects of war; those who suffer must be aided and cared for without discrimination.
The Additional Protocols extend this protection to any person affected by an armed conflict. They say that the parties to the conflict and the combatants shall not attack the civilian population and civilian objects, and they shall conduct their military operations in conformity with the recognized rules and bylaws of humanity. The Additional Protocols are necessary because the nature of war is changing from "international" in scope, to "internal".
There are several other international laws and agreements that limit the effects of war and establish basic human rights for combatants and
- The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxic Weapons and on Their Destruction
- The Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects
- The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of
Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction
(The Ottawa Treaty)
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol
- The United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- The United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
- The Statute of the International Criminal Court
The Basic Rules of War
Attacks must be limited to combatants and military targets
- Civilians must not be attacked.
- Civilian objects (houses, hospitals, schools, places of worship, cultural or historic monuments, etc.) must not be attacked.
- Using civilians to shield military targets is prohibited.
- It is prohibited for combatants to pose as civilians.
- Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited.
- It is prohibited to attack objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (foodstuffs, farming areas, drinking water installations, etc.).
- It is prohibited to attack dams, dykes or nuclear power plants if such an attack may cause severe losses among the civilian population.
Attacks or weapons which indiscriminately strike civilian and military objects and persons, and which cause excessive injury or suffering, are prohibited
- Specific weapons are prohibited - chemical or biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, weapons that injure the body of fragments that escape detection by X-rays, poison, anti-personnel land mines, etc.
- It is prohibited to order, or to threaten, that there shall be no survivors.
Civilians, wounded combatants, and prisoners should be spared, protected and treated humanely
- No one shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, corporal punishment or cruel or degrading treatment.
- Sexual violence is prohibited.
- Parties to the conflict must search for and care for the enemy, the wounded and the sick who are in their power.
- It is prohibited to kill or wound an enemy who is surrendering or who is hors de combat.
- Prisoners are entitled to respect and must be treated humanely.
- Taking hostages is prohibited.
- Forced displacement of the civilian population is prohibited. What is called "ethnic cleansing" is prohibited.
- People in the hands of the enemy have the right to exchange news with their families and to receive humanitarian assistance (food, medical care, psychological support, etc.).
- Vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, and nursing mothers, unaccompanied children, the elderly, etc., must be given special protection.
- Children under 15 may not be recruited or used as combatants.
- Everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Collective punishment is prohibited.
Military and civilian medical personnel and facilities (hospitals, clinics, ambulances, etc.) must be respected and protected and must be granted all available help for the performance of their duties.
- The Red Cross and Red Crescent emblem symbolizes the protection of medical personnel and facilities. Attacks on persons or objects wearing the emblem are prohibited.
- Medical units and transports shall not be used to commit acts harmful to the enemy.
- In the treatment of the wounded and sick, no priority should be given except on medical grounds.
For more information on the rules of international humanitarian law, click on the link below:
ICRC: International Humanitarian Law
Posted February 1, 2008