Notes on International Humanitarian Law

What is International Humanitarian Law (IHL)?

  • International humanitarian law is part of the body of international law that governs relations between States.
  • IHL aims to limit the effects of armed conflicts for humanitarian reasons.
  • (A) It aims to protect persons who are:
    • not or are no longer taking part in hostilities,
    • the sick and wounded, prisoners and civilians,
  • (B) and restricts the means and methods of warfare.
  • International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict
  • International law is contained in agreements between States – treaties or conventions –, in customary rules, which consist of State practice considered by them as legally binding, and in general principles.
  • International humanitarian law applies to armed conflicts (Jus in bello).
  • It does not regulate whether a State may actually use force (Jus ad bellum); this is governed by an important but distinct part of international law set out in the United Nations Charter.

Origin of IHL

  • International humanitarian law is rooted in the rules of ancient civilisations and religions – warfare has always been subject to certain principles and customs.
  • “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” (Al-


     , verse 190)
  • “when he fights with his foes in battle, let him not strike with weapons concealed (in wood), nor with (such as are) barbed, poisoned, or the points of which are blazing with fire” (Manusmriti)
  • Battle of Solferino, 1859, A Memory of Solferino, Jean-Henri Dunant
  • Universal codification of international humanitarian law began in the nineteenth century.
  • Since then, States have agreed to a series of practical rules, based on the bitter experience of modern warfare
  • These rules strike a careful balance between humanitarian concerns and the military requirements of States.

Where international humanitarian law can be found.

  • A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949
  • Nearly every State in the world has agreed to be bound by them.
  • The Conventions have been developed and supplemented by two further agreements: the Additional Protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts.
  • Many provisions of international humanitarian law are now accepted as customary law – that is, as general rules by which all States are bound
  • Other agreements prohibit the use of certain weapons and military tactics and protect certain categories of people and goods.
  • These agreements include:
    • the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, plus its two protocols;
    • the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention;
    • the 1980 Conventional Weapons Convention and its five protocols;
    • the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention;
    • the 1997 Ottawa Convention on anti-personnel mines

When does IHL apply?

  • International humanitarian law applies only to armed conflict; it does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence.
  • the law applies only once a conflict has begun, and then equally to all sides regardless of who started the fighting.
  • International humanitarian law distinguishes between international and non-international armed conflict.
  • International armed conflicts are those in which at least two States are involved. (such as Liberation war of Bangladesh, Tamil/LTTE Movement in Sri Lanka, FSA Vs. Syrian Government)
  • Non-international armed conflicts are those restricted to the territory of a single State, involving either regular armed forces fighting groups of armed dissidents or armed groups fighting each other.

What does IHL cover?

  • International humanitarian law covers two areas:
    • the protection of those who are not, or no longer, taking part in fighting;
    • restrictions on the means of warfare in particular weapons and the methods of warfare, such as military tactics.

Fundamental Principle of International Humanitarian Law

  • Military Necessity
    • It is permissible to use those measures not forbidden by international law which are necessary to secure the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible with the least expenditure of personnel & resources.
    • Recognises that use of force during armed conflict is legal, within the limits set out by IHL.

Further recognises that legitimate military targets can be attacked/destroyed and enemy combatants killed, for legitimate military purposes.

  • Humanity
    • It is forbidden to inflict suffering, injury or destruction not actually necessary to accomplish a legitimate military purpose.

The very purpose of IHL aims at protecting the victims of armed conflict

What is “protection” and rules relating protection?

  • International humanitarian law protects those who do not take part in the fighting, such as
    • civilians and
    • medical and
    • religious military personnel.
  • It also protects those who have ceased to take part, such as
    • wounded,
    • shipwrecked and
    • sick combatants, and
    • prisoners of war (POW)
  • These categories of person are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and mental integrity.
  • They also enjoy legal guarantees.
  • They must be protected and treated humanely in all circumstances, with no adverse distinction.
  • More specifically: it is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or is unable to fight;
  • the sick and wounded must be collected and cared for by the party in whose power they find themselves.
  • Medical personnel, supplies, hospitals and ambulances must all be protected
  • There are also detailed rules governing the conditions of detention for prisoners of war (POW/PsOW) and the way in which civilians are to be treated when under the authority of an enemy power.
  • This includes the provision of food, shelter and medical care, and the right to exchange messages with their families
  • The law sets out a number of clearly recognisable symbols which can be used to identify protected people, places and objects.
  • The main emblems are the Red Cross, the red crescent and the symbols identifying cultural property and civil defence facilities

Is there any restriction on weapon and tactics?

  • IHL prohibits all means and methods of warfare which:
  • fail to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as
  • civilians, who are not, the purpose being to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian property;
  • cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering;
  • cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.

Banned Weapons, such as:

  • Weapon of mass destruction
  • Chemical weapon,
  • Biological weapon,
  • Weapons that unnecessarily increase human sufferings
  • Leser weapons (that blinds people)
  • Mines, etc


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Rayhanul Islam

Advocate Rayhanul Islam is the founder and Editor in Chief of Law Help BD. He is also a researcher. Critical thinking is his main focus. He is on a quest to bring positive change to the legal sector of Bangladesh. He promotes legal knowledge and human rights concept to the root level. e-mail: [email protected]

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1 Response

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