International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the laws of war or the law of armed conflict, is a set of rules and principles that aim to protect those who are affected by armed conflicts. IHL provides legal safeguards for both civilians and combatants during times of armed conflict.
- Civilians: IHL places a strong emphasis on the protection of civilians who are not taking part in hostilities. It prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, as well as acts of violence or discrimination against them. Civilians must be treated humanely and have the right to receive necessary humanitarian assistance. IHL also protects specific groups, such as children, women, and the elderly, who may be more vulnerable in armed conflict situations.
- Combatants: IHL provides rules and protections for those directly participating in the hostilities. These rules apply to members of armed forces and non-state armed groups who are engaged in fighting. Combatants must distinguish themselves from civilians and carry their weapons openly. They must not engage in perfidious acts or use tactics that cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. IHL also grants certain protections to combatants who are hors de combat, meaning they are injured, sick, shipwrecked, or captured.
- Prisoners of War: IHL has specific provisions to protect prisoners of war (POWs) who are captured during armed conflicts. POWs are entitled to humane treatment, medical care, and respect for their dignity. They must be treated with fairness and are protected against torture, cruel treatment, and degrading conditions. POWs also have the right to correspond with their families and receive visits from humanitarian organizations.
- Medical and Humanitarian Personnel: IHL recognizes the importance of medical personnel and humanitarian workers who provide assistance to the wounded and affected populations. They are protected from attack and must be allowed to carry out their duties without interference. Medical personnel, hospitals, and other medical facilities must be respected and protected, and cannot be used for military purposes.
- Objects and Infrastructure: IHL aims to safeguard certain objects and infrastructure that are essential for the well-being of the civilian population, such as hospitals, schools, and cultural heritage sites. These objects should not be attacked, unless they are being used for military purposes.
IHL sets out these and many other rules to minimize the suffering caused by armed conflicts and to preserve the dignity and rights of individuals affected by such conflicts. Its principles are enshrined in various international treaties and customary international law, and violations of IHL can be prosecuted as war crimes.