Who does IHL protect and how?

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International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Laws of War, is a set of rules that seeks to protect individuals who are affected by armed conflicts and to limit the methods and means of warfare. IHL applies during times of armed conflict, whether international or non-international in nature, and its main purpose is to reduce human suffering and protect those who are not or are no longer taking part in the hostilities.

IHL protects the following categories of individuals:

  1. Civilians: IHL provides special protections for civilians who are not taking part in hostilities. It prohibits attacks directed against civilians and requires parties to the conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Civilians must be treated humanely and are entitled to receive medical care, food, and other basic necessities.
  2. Combatants: IHL regulates the conduct of individuals who are directly participating in hostilities. It distinguishes between lawful combatants (members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict) and unlawful combatants (those who do not meet the criteria for lawful combatant status). Combatants are entitled to certain protections, such as humane treatment and legal status, as long as they abide by the laws of war.
  3. Prisoners of war: IHL provides specific protections for captured combatants who qualify as prisoners of war (POWs). POWs must be treated humanely, and their rights include proper housing, medical care, and access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They should not be subjected to torture, cruel treatment, or other forms of degrading behavior.
  4. Wounded, sick, and shipwrecked individuals: IHL protects individuals who are wounded, sick, or shipwrecked during armed conflicts. It requires parties to the conflict to provide them with medical care and treatment, regardless of their nationality or allegiance.
  5. Medical and humanitarian personnel: IHL safeguards the rights and protections of medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers, as well as humanitarian workers involved in providing assistance to those affected by armed conflicts. They must be allowed to carry out their duties and provide care without being targeted or hindered.
  6. Civilian objects and infrastructure: IHL establishes protections for civilian objects such as homes, schools, hospitals, and cultural heritage sites. Parties to the conflict are obligated to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects and must avoid targeting or causing unnecessary harm to civilian infrastructure.

It is important to note that IHL places obligations on all parties involved in armed conflicts, whether state actors or non-state armed groups. The rules of IHL are primarily codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, as well as in customary international law.

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