What does IHL say about civilian property and the materials needed to sustain life?

For civilian populations, war and conflict bring hardship.  International Humanitarian Law (IHL) exists to protect those who are not fighting, or who are no longer fighting in wars and conflicts – and to help populations from suffering. IHL protects civilians from being targets, but also protects the materials civilians need to survive such as water and food, as well as civilian property such as homes, places of worship, schools, civilian transportation, and hospitals.

Civilian objects: An example of a protected civilian object is drinking water. Without proper access to drinking water we experience thirst, dehydration, or disease from contamination - so it’s considered indispensable for civilian survival. Water holds a special protection because of how vital it is - this protection extends to water sanitization and distribution. Attacking or limiting access to water is illegal under IHL.

Civilian property: Civilian properties, like homes or hospitals, are protected under IHL. This protection is considered permanent but can be lost if the property is used for fighting. For example, if a home is used to store weapons, or a medical transport is used to transport weapons they are no longer considered civilian property. Before the loss of protection is official a warning must be given where feasible.

What happens if IHL is broken?

Commanders have a duty to ensure that their soldiers know and respect the rules of war, such as the protection given to civilian materials. When IHL is broken, those who are involved in a conflict have an obligation to take disciplinary or penal steps against those alleged to have committed the violations. This means governments have the obligation to take steps and if necessary, prosecute those who are alleged to have committed these crimes.

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

Read more:
International Humanitarian Law – protecting healthcare
International Humanitarian Law – protecting civilians
International Humanitarian Law - protecting children