• Panah Kirana

A Brief Introduction to International Humanitarian Law

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What is International Humanitarian Law?

Despite how unfavorable war may seem to be, parties have and still continue to engage in its conducts from time to time. To limit the effects of war and to protect those either not or no longer involved in hostilities, the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is present and applied. In short, IHL are laws concerning the conduct of warfare which apply in times of armed conflicts.

Throughout the years, IHL has been significantly promoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC is an organization which ensures humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence.

Historical Background

Historically, wars were already regulated in both Western and Eastern cultures to limit its devastating effects. However, as the regulations were deemed unsuccessful in curbing the violence and destructions caused, movements to codify the laws of war arose in the 19th century; hence, it was through this movement that modern IHL was born.

At first, IHL—which was strongly associated to the Geneva Conventions—was only considered a part of the laws of war. It was distinguished with the Hague Convention, which was said to regulate methods and conducts of warfare while the Geneva Conventions focused on humanitarian aspects. After various attempts from the ICRC, the regime of IHL was expanded—rather than just being a part of the laws of war, IHL was considered to be the law of wars itself. That is why modern IHL also incorporates the methods of warfare.

Its Laws

IHL’s key treaties are four of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, its two Additional Protocols (AP I & II), and the 1907 Hague Regulations. In addition to those, IHL also includes other treaties namely the 1993 Convention on Chemical Weapons as well as a study conducted by the ICRC, the “Customary International Humanitarian Law” (CIHL).

AP I & II were products of IHL drafted by State representatives in a Diplomatic Conference that began from 1974 and ended in 1977. However, a lot of the lawyers at that time remarked that AP I had put too much emphasis on humanitarian issues rather than military necessity, making the law impossible to carry out. This stance persisted for quite some time until over the 1990s. Contrary to the lawyers from the previous period, numerous international lawyers agreed that AP I should be considered customary law and how its emphasis in humanitarian values was important.


In applying IHL, international measures which have been implemented include the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which tries, amongst other things, war crimes, and the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to punish the acts which occurred in the area’s conflicts. In 2010, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) was established to conduct the remaining functions of the ICTY and ICTR.

While the presence of these courts have played their part in bringing justice, the IHL, as an international law, is limited in binding power as it cannot overrule a state’s sovereignty. Although parties such as the ICC and ICRC may act on IHL violations—ICC by issuing arrest warrants and trying suspects and the ICRC by noting violations and sending recommendations—states could nonetheless, easily choose to dismiss these. The ICRC itself admits that “sadly, there are countless examples of violation of international humanitarian law. Increasingly, the victims of war are civilians.” This is evident in real-life situations such as the continuous instability and armed violence occurring in the Middle East region.


The advancement of time and situations have altered the way IHL is perceived and used to address conflicts. IHL has gone through the journey of being only a strand of the law of war, dismissed as “too humanitarian” to be implemented, gradually acknowledged for its importance until it is where it is today. Despite the progresses, plenty remains needed to be done in order to address current conflicts and anticipate the advancements of war technology may bring.

Just as the ICRC states, “Whether as individuals or through governments and various organizations, we can all make an important contribution to compliance with international humanitarian law.”

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