UN Photos/Artwork by Octavio Roth

HUMANITARIAN LAW: principles and international treaties outlining the conduct of nations engaged in warfare that aim to protect combatants and civilians affected by armed conflicts. It is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.

Humanitarian Law seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict on combatants and civilians by defining their fundamental rights. The principles of humanitarian law are found in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Hague Conventions, in addition to several other agreements signed by most nations. These rights are expanded in the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions. International humanitarian law complements international law, which is a set of rules that govern relations between states.



Principle of distinction

The principle of distinction is established by Article 48 of Protocol I of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, which states that "Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives." In armed conflict, this principle prohibits the use of indiscriminate weapons and the use of legal weapons in indiscriminate ways.

Indiscriminate weapons

Indiscriminate weapons are difficult to aim or have difficult-to-control effects. Few weapons are inherently indiscriminate; this could easily change, however, as new war-fighting technologies are developed.

Indiscriminate use of legal weapons

Indiscriminate use of legal weapons refers to the use of legal weapons that are not properly targeted or target civilian and military objects and/or populations without distinction. There are three criteria for determining this: discrimination, proportionality, and duty of care. Articles 51 through 58 of Protocol I further defines these criteria and the issue of indiscriminate use of weapons against civilian targets.

Prisoners of War

Combatants "who have fallen into the power of the enemy" are considered prisoners of war (POWs). International law provides for the general rights, protection, and treatment of POW’s while they are in captivity or internment. According to The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (1949), POWs also include members of the armed forces, volunteer corps, militias, those accompanying the armed forces, and civilians or inhabitants of an area who take up arms to resist invading forces. Protocol I (1977) provides additional information related to the definition and treatment of POWs.



Geneva Conventions
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
International Institute of Humanitarian Law
International Committee of the Red Cross

Selected Carnegie Council Materials

Simon Chesterman, "Occupation as Liberation: International Humanitarian Law and Regime Change."
Mark Bowden, Mark Danner, Darius Rejali, Elaine Scarry, Aryeh Neier, Joel H. Rosenthal, The Question of Torture: A Panel Discussion.
Richard A. Falk, Ruth Wedgwood, William L. Nash, Fawaz A. Gerges, George A. Lopez, "The New War: What Rules Apply?"
Anthony F. Lang, Jr., Civilians and War: Dilemmas in Law and Morality.
Alberto Mora, Ethical Considerations: Law, Foreign Policy, and The War on Terror.
Michael N. Schmitt, Ethics and Military Force: The Jus in Bello.
Cornelio Sommaruga, "Humanity: Our Priority Now and Always: Response to 'Principles, Politics, and Humanitarian Action.'"
Dan Rather Interviews Alberto Mora Former U.S. Navy General Counsel.
Joel Rosenthal, Accountability: How to Treat Unlawful Combatants.

Further Reading

Chadwick, Elizabeth. Self-Determination, Terrorism, and the International Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflict (The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1996).
Fleck, Dieter, ed. The Handbook of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflicts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Fischer, H. & A. McDonald, eds. Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law. Series published by Cambridge University Press.
Human Rights Watch. Background Paper on Geneva Conventions and Persons Held by U.S. Forces (January 2002).
Othman, Mohamed Chande. Accountability for International Humanitarian Law Violations: The Case of Rwanda and East Timor (New York: Springer, 2005).
Provost, René. International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).