IHL Principles – Armed Conflicts

International Humanitarian law presents a balance between military necessity and humanity because it allows military force within the confines of the law. The Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols describe rules of war including how attacks must be conducted regarding rules against whom or what an attack can be conducted against.

Throughout my blog posts, I have discussed armed conflicts in a general sense. However, there are two specific types of armed conflicts including International Armed Conflicts (IAC) and Non-International Armed Conflicts (NIAC). An International Armed Conflict according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Common Article 2 is essentially a conflict between two states.  A Non-International Armed Conflict involves a conflict between a state and a non-state party. It is sometimes difficult to define whether a situation is an IAC or NIAC because the two factors, intensity of violence and level of organization of the parties are relative terms. If however, a situation is deemed to be an IAC or NIAC, then IHL immediately comes into play.

International Humanitarian Law includes law that governs attacks. For example, attacks must be directed at military objectives, not civilians because they have a protective status. According to Additional Protocol I, military objectives are “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization…offers a definite military advantage.” Some of these targets include railroad lines, bridges, lines of communication, war ministries, armed forces, coal mines, and similar objects. While there is no such thing as a civilian target, a civilian can be targeted if he or she is directly participating in the hostilities. At this point in this particular lecture, Professor Terry Gil showed the class a video in which a civilian unloaded a bomb off of a deceased combatant, and subsequently threw it at the opposing party. The civilian directly participated in the hostility, which gave the opposing party license to kill this person.

Depending on the type of conflict, IAC or NIAC, there are also protected classes. In an International Armed Conflict, the wounded, sick, shipwrecked, civilians, and prisoners of war enjoy protection. Civilians, however, can be detained when, and as long as they pose a threat to an occupying power.

In a non-international armed conflict, civilians who have not taken part in hostilities, wounded or sick soldiers, and soldiers who have surrendered enjoy protective status. Additionally, the term “combatants” is exclusive to an IAC, while the term “fighter” is used to denote parties in a NIAC. While on the topic of describing general terms, a Prisoner of War (POW) according to Geneva Convention III is a combatant captured by an adverse party. If a combatant fails to distinguish his- or her-self from the civilian population, of if one is caught in espionage or is found to be a mercenary, then this person is not entitled to Prisoner of War protection. A Prisoner of War enjoys certain protections including the right to food, water, medical attention and cigarettes. The POW is also allowed the right to send and receive mail and the right to be visited. The POW is also protected from torture and killing, but the POW may be put to work unless he or she is an officer. The POW must be paid at least 8 Swiss Francs a month, which equals about eight dollars and twenty-nine cents.

Furthermore, people who are new to the field of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) believe that it is interchangeable with Human Rights law.  While these two disciplines often intersect, they are distinct areas of the law. IHL includes the laws that govern of armed conflicts, and its main goal is to protect without discrimination, the victims of armed conflict. Human Rights strictly concerns itself with the inherent rights and obligations that humans have under international law. The main goal of human rights is to protect people from abusive power. Additionally, Human Rights law is binding on governments and certain types of non-state actors. IHL is activated only during times of armed conflicts. Lastly, while both bodies of law are expected to be implemented by state actors, at the international level the ICRC governs IHL and the United Nations governs Human Rights.

Another intersection of IHL involves International Criminal Law. I was fortunate enough to be able to receive this lecture from Professor William Schabas, one of the leading experts in this field. Before World War I criminals could only be prosecuted by a state. Following this war, international law suggested that criminals could be prosecuted at an international level, and as a result, international tribunals began to be formed in an effort to prosecute those who committed serious violations of humanity, colloquially know as war crimes. Today we have the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established by the Rome Statute, a treaty that one hundred and twenty-four countries have joined and ratified. If an individual is a citizen of a country that is not a party to the statute, the individual could still face liability for serious violations of humanity, or “war crimes” if the crime is committed within a country that is a party to the treaty.

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