Preserving Humanity: A Closer Look at International Humanitarian Law

Preserving Humanity: A Closer Look at International Humanitarian Law

Author: Chandini Prajapati from City Groups of Colleges, Lucknow


International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also referred to as the law of armed conflict, constitutes a crucial branch of public international law. Its primary purpose is to regulate the conduct of parties involved in armed conflicts, ensuring the protection of individuals and minimizing human suffering during times of war.

Key aspects of IHL include the Protection of the Wounded and Sick, IHL establishes guidelines for the humane treatment of wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces. Rights of Prisoners of War (POWs), Specific rules govern the treatment and rights of captured combatants. Safeguarding Civilians, A subset of IHL known as the law of Geneva aims to shield civilians from the adverse effects of armed conflicts. IHL encompasses both treaty-based provisions and customary norms. It addresses various dimensions, including the conduct of hostilities, targeting principles, and restrictions on specific weaponry.

The dual objective of IHL is to balance the imperative of protecting vulnerable individuals with the necessity of prosecuting armed conflicts.

International Humanitarian Law plays a pivotal role in protecting humanity amidst the chaos of conflict, emphasizing the fundamental rights and dignity of all individuals involved.


International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict, encompasses a set of rules designed to mitigate the impact of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons. Its purpose is to limit the effects of armed conflict by safeguarding individuals who are not actively participating in hostilities. IHL imposes restrictions on the means and methods of warfare to prevent unnecessary suffering and protect vulnerable populations. Drawing from historical roots, including principles observed in ancient civilizations and religious teachings, IHL is now regarded as a universal law, applicable during armed warfare worldwide. It shields various categories of people, such as civilians and medical and religious military personnel. Easily recognizable symbols, like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, designate protected individuals, places, and items. Additionally, symbols indicate cultural property and civil defense infrastructure. The legislation strictly prohibits the use of certain weapons, including explosive bullets, chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, and anti-personnel mines. In summary, IHL strives to uphold humanitarian values amidst conflict, ensuring that even in war, fundamental rights and protections remain in place.

Scope of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

IHL protects individuals who are not directly involved in combat, including civilians, wounded soldiers, and prisoners of war.

It also imposes restrictions on how parties to a conflict can conduct military operations, ensuring that certain actions are off-limits even during war.

Sources of IHL:

Treaties: Key agreements like the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 form the backbone of IHL.

Additional Protocols I and II (1977) further enhance protections for victims of armed conflicts.

Customary International Law: Established through state practice and opinio juris (the belief that practice is legally obligatory), customary IHL complements treaty law.

General Principles of Law: Jus cogens norms, such as the prohibition of genocide and torture, are fundamental principles that apply universally.

Judicial Decisions and Teachings: The International Court of Justice contributes to IHL through its rulings and advisory opinions.

Aims of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

Protection and Assistance:

Safeguarding Vulnerable Populations: IHL places paramount importance on protecting individuals who find themselves embroiled in armed conflicts. These include:

Civilians: The primary victims of war, civilians often suffer disproportionately. IHL prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians and their property. It ensures that civilians are treated humanely, irrespective of their nationality or affiliation.

Wounded and Sick Combatants: IHL mandates that wounded and sick combatants receive medical care. Medical personnel, facilities, and transports are safeguarded to facilitate this care.

Prisoners of War (POWs): IHL outlines specific rules for the treatment of POWs. These rules cover humane conditions of detention, access to Red Cross or Red Crescent visits, and the right to correspond with family members.

Displaced Persons: IHL addresses the plight of those forcibly displaced due to conflict. It seeks to ensure their safety, access to necessities, and protection from harm.

Humanitarian Aid: IHL encourages the provision of humanitarian assistance to affected populations. This aid includes food, water, shelter, and medical supplies. Humanitarian organizations play a crucial role in delivering such assistance.

Regulation of Warfare:

Balancing Military Necessity and Humanity: IHL acknowledges the reality of armed conflicts but seeks to mitigate their impact. It establishes boundaries on the conduct of warfare, recognizing that even in war, certain actions remain unacceptable.

Prohibited Acts:

Indiscriminate Attacks: IHL categorically prohibits deliberate attacks on civilians, civilian objects, and non-military targets. The principle of distinction requires combatants to differentiate between military and civilian targets.

Torture and Inhumane Treatment: IHL unequivocally condemns torture, cruel treatment, and any acts that violate human dignity. Combatants must adhere to humane treatment standards.

Weapons Restrictions: IHL restricts the use of weapons that cause excessive harm or have indiscriminate effects. For instance, chemical weapons, landmines, and certain explosive devices are strictly regulated.

Principles of Distinction and Proportionality:

Distinction: Combatants must distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects. Deliberate attacks on civilians are strictly forbidden.

Proportionality: Military actions must be proportionate to the intended military advantage. Disproportionate attacks causing excessive harm to civilians or civilian infrastructure violate IHL.

Principles of International Humanitarian Law:

Principle of Distinction: This principle ensures that civilians and civilian objects are shielded from harm during military activities. It emphasizes distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants.

Necessity and Proportionality: Under this well-established standard, opponents can only use the minimum force required to defeat their enemies. Excessive or disproportionate force is prohibited.

Humane Treatment: Civilians must be treated humanely at all times. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions restricts violence against life and person, including torture and harsh treatment.

Non-Discrimination: International Humanitarian Law prohibits discrimination based on race, nationality, religious belief, or political opinion. Both prisoners of war and civilians deserve equal treatment.

Protection of Women and Children: Special consideration, respect, and protection are accorded to women and children. Rape and indecent assault against women are strictly prohibited.

Access to Basic Needs: Occupying powers must ensure that people in occupied territories have access to essentials like food, medicine, health supplies, and services. Starving people intentionally as a warfare tactic is forbidden.

Respect for Relief Workers: The law mandates respectful treatment of relief workers and provides them with protection.

Guidelines for Humanitarian Assistance: International Humanitarian Law establishes regulations for delivering aid in armed situations, including access, customs clearance, and relief taxation.

Protection of Vulnerable Groups: Guidelines include non-discrimination and positive measures to safeguard vulnerable populations.

Safeguarding Rights: The law protects political rights (such as the right to life and freedom from torture) and economic and social rights (including access to food, shelter, health, and livelihood).

Landmark cases related to International Humanitarian Law (IHL):  

The Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946):

After World War II, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg convened to prosecute high-ranking Nazi officials for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Key figures like Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Julius Streicher faced justice.

The trials established the groundbreaking principle that individuals could be held accountable for atrocities committed during armed conflicts.

The Nuremberg Principles, derived from these trials, emphasized the importance of individual responsibility and the duty to prevent and punish war crimes.

The Tokyo Trials (1946-1948):

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo addressed war crimes committed by Japanese officials during World War II.

The trials focused on crimes such as aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The Tokyo Trials underscored the need to hold leaders accountable for their actions, regardless of their official positions.

The concept of “crimes against humanity” gained prominence during these proceedings.

The Eichmann Trial (1961):

Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust, was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought to trial in Jerusalem.

The trial highlighted the concept of “crimes against humanity” and the duty to prevent and punish such crimes.

Eichmann’s defense that he was merely following orders did not absolve him of responsibility.

The trial emphasized the importance of individual culpability even in cases of systematic state-sponsored atrocities.

The Tadić Case (1997):

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Duško Tadić, a Bosnian Serb, for war crimes committed during the Bosnian War.

This landmark case clarified the definition of war crimes and the application of IHL in non-international armed conflicts.

Tadić’s conviction highlighted the responsibility of individuals for acts such as torture, murder, and rape during the conflict.

The Lubanga Trial (2012):

Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, faced trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers.

The case underscored the protection of children during armed conflicts.

Lubanga’s conviction sent a strong message that child recruitment is unacceptable under IHL.

The Al Mahdi Case (2016):

Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, an Islamist extremist, was convicted by the ICC for destroying cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu, Mali.

The case emphasized the importance of safeguarding cultural property during conflicts.

Al Mahdi’s actions violated IHL’s provisions protecting cultural heritage.

The Bemba Case (2018):

Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese politician and militia leader, was acquitted by the ICC on appeal.

The case clarified the responsibility of commanders for crimes committed by their subordinates.

Bemba’s acquittal highlighted the challenges in proving command responsibility.


As we sit around this polished table, let us reflect on the profound impact of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In the cacophony of war drums and geopolitical tensions, IHL emerges as a beacon—a compass guiding us through the fog of conflict.

1. Individual Accountability

The Nuremberg Trials, etched in history, taught us that no uniform, no rank, shields an individual from responsibility. War crimes, crimes against humanity—they stain the collective conscience. IHL insists that even amidst chaos, justice prevails. Our duty? To hold perpetrators accountable, irrespective of their titles or affiliations.

2. Shielding the Vulnerable

Imagine Aleppo’s ancient streets, once bustling with life, now reduced to rubble. IHL steps in, whispering to combatants, “Civilians are not collateral damage.” Safe zones, humanitarian corridors—they are our lifelines. The Lubanga Trial reminds us that children should wield pencils, not AK-47s. Their innocence is our sacred trust.

3. Cultural Heritage: Guardians of Memory

The Al Mahdi Case—Timbuktu’s mud-brick mosques, centuries-old manuscripts—our shared heritage. IHL becomes a custodian, saying, “These walls echo humanity’s story.” When extremists defile these treasures, they assault our collective memory. We stand guard, for these artifacts transcend borders; they are our testament to resilience.

4. Command Responsibility

Leaders, listen closely. The Bemba Case echoes through these walls. Command responsibility—those in power bear the weight of their subordinates’ actions. Whether in the jungles of Congo or the deserts of Syria, leaders shape destinies. IHL demands integrity, not impunity.

5. Our Role: Architects of Compassion

Beyond treaties and courtrooms, it’s our daily choices that uphold IHL. As diplomats, lawyers, and global citizens, we are architects of compassion. We sip coffee, debate resolutions, and weave IHL into our policy frameworks. We ensure that in the theater of conflict, humanity remains center stage.

So, esteemed colleagues, let us carry IHL not as legalese but as a torch—a beacon that illuminates our path toward a more just and humane world.

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