What is International Humanitarian Law?

International humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict, is the body of wartime rules that protect people who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities. Its central purpose is to limit and prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict. International humanitarian law regulates the treatment of the wounded and prohibits attacks against civilians and the use of certain weapons. It also ensures the protection of non-combatants; Red Cross, Red Crescent and medical personnel; and prisoners of war.  Governments and their armed forces, armed opposition groups and any other party to a conflict must observe the rules of international humanitarian law. Humanitarian law protects everyone, regardless of race, sex, religion, nationality, political opinion, culture or social status.

International humanitarian law applies only during times of armed conflict. It does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. The laws apply only once a conflict has begun, and then equally to all sides, regardless of who started the fighting.

International humanitarian law also distinguishes between international and non-international armed conflict:

International armed conflict

International armed conflicts involve at least two countries. They are subject to a wide range of rules, including those set out in the four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I.

Non-international armed conflict

Non-international armed conflicts take place within the territory of a single country, involving either official armed forces fighting other armed groups, or armed groups fighting each other. A more limited range of rules applies to internal armed conflicts. These are set out in Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, as well as in Additional Protocol II.

The Canadian Red Cross helps disseminate the principles of international humanitarian law to the armed forces, lawmakers, politicians, youth and the general public. The more people know about international humanitarian law, and the more they understand its impact on human life and dignity, the more likely combatants are to respect it.

For more information about our IHL programming, contact ihl-dih@redcross.ca