Recent humanitarian emergencies around the world have some people asking if there are any limits to war. Well, there are – and those limits are governed by International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Here are some of the ways that IHL protects civilians.

What is International Humanitarian Law?
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) exists to protect those who are not, or are no longer, participating in fighting and restricts the methods and weapons used in war.

What does IHL say about civilians?
Sadly, civilians are often the  casualties in armed conflict. Following WWII’s tragic loss of civilian life, as well as the treatment of surviving civilians, the 1949 Geneva Conventions adopted new protections for people who were not in the armed forces or armed groups. Under these protections, civilians are not to be targeted.

This protection extends to civilian property as well as those who are trying to provide aid to them, such as medical units or humanitarian organization like the Red Cross.  In fact, there are specific requirements that mean the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and others who are providing impartial aid to the civilian population  must be allowed to work.

Vulnerable people: While all civilians are protected under IHL, without discrimination, there are specific groups that are considered especially vulnerable – women, children, the aged and sick, as well as those who flee their homes and become displaced or refugees.

Families: Families are often separated during armed conflicts. Under IHL, states are expected to take all appropriate steps to prevent this, and take action to re-establish family contact.

Civilians and enemy forces: When civilians are under the power of an enemy force they are still under protection. Civilians are to be treated humanely, and they are protected against all forms of violence and degrading treatment, including murder and torture. If a civilian is being prosecuted they are entitled to a fair trial.

What happens if IHL is broken?
Commanders have a duty to make sure that their soldiers know the rules of war and respect IHL. Those involved in a conflict are obligated to start disciplinary or penal steps against those who are alleged to have committed violations. This means that governments have the obligation to take steps to hold individuals accountable for serious violations of IHL.

Because civilians are specifically targeted in some conflicts, the Red Cross continues to educate and press states to uphold IHL.

Read more:
International humanitarian law – protecting healthcare
International Humanitarian Law – protecting children