What is international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the law of armed conflict or the law of war, is a set of rules and principles that seeks to protect individuals who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, and to regulate the conduct of armed conflict. It is a branch of international law that applies during times of armed conflict, whether international or non-international in nature.

The main purpose of international humanitarian law is to limit the effects of armed conflict and to mitigate the suffering caused by warfare. It establishes rules that are binding on both states and non-state armed groups, aiming to strike a balance between military necessity and the protection of human rights and humanitarian values.

The key principles of international humanitarian law include:

  1. Distinction: Parties to a conflict must distinguish between civilians and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives. It is prohibited to target civilians or civilian objects.
  2. Proportionality: The anticipated military advantage from an attack must outweigh the expected harm to civilians or civilian objects. Disproportionate attacks are prohibited.
  3. Precautions: Parties to a conflict are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. They must give advance warning of attacks whenever possible.
  4. Prohibition of unnecessary suffering: It is prohibited to cause unnecessary suffering or to inflict cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment on individuals who are in the power of a party to the conflict.
  5. Protection of certain persons and objects: International humanitarian law provides special protections for certain categories of persons, such as the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked, prisoners of war, and civilians. It also safeguards specific objects, such as hospitals, cultural property, and the natural environment.

International humanitarian law is primarily embodied in treaties and conventions, including the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols. These treaties are widely ratified and form the core of IHL. Additionally, customary international law and general principles of humanity are recognized as binding sources of international humanitarian law.

States, armed forces, and individuals are obligated to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Violations of IHL can lead to individual criminal responsibility, and efforts are made to hold accountable those who commit war crimes and other serious violations.

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