What is international humanitarian law?

Whether you’re studying international relations, international public policy or another related subject, it’s important to have a good understanding of international humanitarian law.

What is international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law refers to a set of rules that aim to limit the effects of armed conflict. These rules define the responsibilities both state and non-state armed groups need to take during armed conflicts.

These responsibilities concern the passage of humanitarian relief, freedom of movement of humanitarian relief staff, and protection of civilians, refugees, prisoners, the wounded and the sick.

Where did international humanitarian law come from?

Since ancient civilisations, warfare has been guided by rules, principles and customs. As the international community grew, however, there was a need for universal codification of international humanitarian law, and this began in the 19th century.

Since then, an increasing number of states have contributed to developing these rules, transforming international humanitarian law into a universal body of law.

Where can I find international humanitarian law?

International humanitarian law can predominately be found in the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which almost every state in the world has agreed to follow.

Along with the 1977 and 2005 additional protocols, the Geneva Conventions provide guidelines around humanitarian action during times of war.

When can international humanitarian law be applied?

International humanitarian law only applies in cases of armed conflict. It applies to all sides involved in any armed conflict, regardless of which side started the conflict.

International humanitarian law includes two types of armed conflicts:

  • International armed conflict – where at least two states are involved. These are subject to a wide range of rules under international humanitarian law.
  • Non-international armed conflict – where conflict is confined to a specific state. A limited range of rules under international humanitarian law apply to these types of conflicts.

What types of cases does international humanitarian law cover?

International humanitarian law essentially covers two main areas:

1. Protecting people who aren’t currently taking part in fighting, or who are no longer taking part in fighting.

These people include civilians and medical and religious military personnel. They also include people who are no longer taking part in armed conflict, such as the wounded and the sick, and prisoners of war.

Under international humanitarian law, people that fall into these categories must be protected and treated humanely in all circumstances.

 2. Restricting the means of warfare – especially weapons – and the methods of warfare, such as military tactics.

This includes prohibiting means and methods of warfare that:

  • Don’t discriminate between those taking part in fighting and those who aren’t taking part in fighting
  • Cause unnecessary injury or suffering
  • Cause long-term or severe damage to the environment.

If you’re interested in exploring international humanitarian law  further, Queen Mary Online offers a part-time, online MA in International Relations and a part-time, online MSc in International Public Policy:

International Public Policy course details

International Relations course details

Topics: MA international relations, international public policy MSc

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