International Humanitarian Law

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International Humanitarian Law (IHL), is also known as the Law of War or the Law of Armed Conflict. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, it is “a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.”

The law of warfare existed historically as a set of practices developed over hundreds of years, but in the mid-19th century states began to codify the law into treaties. The most significant early efforts were the First Hague Conference in 1899 and the Second Hague Conference in 1907, which resulted in the Hague Conventions, which governed the conduct of warfare. These have been supplemented by additional agreements in the years since.

In 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, the Geneva Conventions established the rules protecting people during wartime. Specifically, they protect those not taking part in the hostilities, such as civilians and aid workers, as well as those no longer participating, such as the wounded and prisoners of war.

IHL consists of a number of these and a number of other treaties and conventions, as well as a body of customary international humanitarian law.

Sources of IHL: Treaties and conventions

The most significant sources of International Humanitarian Law are the pertinent international treaties.

Other Online Sources for Treaties

International Committee of the Red Cross Treaty Database
This website offers access to over seventy IHL treaties, conventions and protocols, browseable by keyword, topic, date or state. A separate page offers historical treaties, beginning with the 1856 Paris Declaration. For available treaties, charts are attached showing which states are party to each treaty. Treaties are only available in HTML format on this website.

EISIL International Humanitarian Law page
This website doesn’t maintain any full-text treaties itself, but offers direct links to full-text versions of treaties hosted on other websites in International Humanitarian Law based on the following four subtopics: Protection of Persons, Protection of Environment, War Crimes and Protection of Cultural Property.

Treaty-Related Materials

Law Library of Congress's Geneva Conventions Materials
A collection of full-text conference proceedings, reports and drafts related to the adoption of the Geneva a Conventions, as well as the complete Proceedings of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which can be directly accessed at this link. This collection is useful for researchers looking for more context and discussion about the creation of particular treaties and specifically offers U.S. Government Documents articulating its position with regard to international obligations under relevant treaties.

Citation Information for Geneva Conventions and Protocols

The four Geneva Conventions and their additional Protocols form the modern framework for the treatment of soldiers, prisoners of war and non-combatants during wartime. All except Protocol III should be cited to United States Treaties and/or United Nations Treaty Series.

United States Treaties and Other International Agreements (U.S.T.) is available in the UNC Law Library in hard copy and microfiche at KZ 235.3 .U55; it can also be found on HeinOnline.

United Nations Treaty Series (U.N.T.S.) is available in the UNC Law Library in hard copy and microfiche at KZ172 .T74; it is also on HeinOnline.

Title Date UST citation UN TS citation
“Geneva I”
Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field
Aug. 12, 1949 6 U.S.T. 3114 75 U.N.T.S. 31
“Geneva II”
Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea
Aug. 12, 1949 6 U.S.T. 3217 75 U.N.T.S. 85
“Geneva III”
Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
Aug. 12, 1949 6 U.S.T. 3316 75 U.N.T.S. 135
“Geneva IV”
Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War
Aug. 12, 1949 6 U.S.T. 3516 75 U.N.T.S. 287
“Protocol I”
Protocol Additions to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts
June 8, 1977 No U.S.T. citation 1125 U.N.T.S. 3
“Protocol II”
Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts
June 8, 1977 No U.S.T. citation 1125 U.N.T.S. 609
“Protocol III”
Protocol III Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949
, and Relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem.
Dec. 8, 2005 No U.S.T. citation; can be found on the ICRC website at: No U.N.T.S. citation

Sources of Customary International Humanitarian Law

Customary international humanitarian law consists of rules derived over time from “a general practice accepted as law”. Customary IHL complements and fills in the gaps in treaty law. The best freely available online source is the International Committee of the Red Cross’s website on customary practice in international humanitarian law.

International Committee of the Red Cross: Customary International Humanitarian Law
The website of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which includes the Customary IHL Database for access to the rules and practice of customary IHL, as well as other materials relating to customary IHL. This website also includes a full text database version of Customary International Humanitarian Law, by Jean-Marie Henckaerts and Louise Doswald-Beck and PDF versions of Volume I: Rules and Volume II: Practices.

The database version of Customary International Humanitarian Law contains rules and practices, but is updated on a regular basis.

International Courts and IHL

International Court of Justice
The ICJ (also called the “World Court”), is the principal judicial body of the United Nations, and as such has jurisdiction over issues relating to international human rights law. The official case reporter is Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions, and Orders (Recueil des arrêts, avis consultatifs et ordonnances) (I.C.J.), available in paper at the UNC Law Library at KZ214 .I58, as well as on HeinOnline.

International Criminal Court
This court is not connected with the United Nations, but was created by the Rome Statute in 1988 as a permanent, international criminal court with jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. ICC cases and other information are available on the court’s website.

In addition to the importance of permanent, international courts and regional human rights bodies, in the past ad hoc tribunals were set up to deal with particular conflicts.

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
The ICTR was created by the United Nations Security Council to prosecute those responsible for genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law in 11994 in Rwanda and neighboring states. In addition to the case decisions, the website offers a wide range of legal materials including the founding documents, pertinent UN Security Council resolutions and court rules.

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
Established in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) hears cases related to war crimes committed during the Balkans conflict in the 1990’s. Its Legal Library offers access to case decisions, court records and even governing procedure and evidence rules.

Special Court for Sierra Leone
Created jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, this court is charged with prosecuting those responsible for the violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

The International Military Tribunal for Germany
This tribunal conducted the famous Nuremberg Trials of civilian and military leaders of Germany after World War II. The Avalon Project’s page offers access to a wide array of materials relating to the tribunal itself as well as the individual cases.

International Organizations Working in IHL

International Committee of the Red Cross
The most significant institution in enforcing humanitarian law, the ICRC is an independent organization with the legal mandate, among others, to insure compliance with the Geneva Conventions and other provisions of IHL and to protect civilians and prisoners of war during conflicts.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
The UNHCR is charged with the protection of refugees. It coordinates relief efforts and fosters opportunities for both asylum and repatriation.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
The OCHA is the organization responsible for coordinating humanitarian efforts around the world. The website provides news about humanitarian activities and access to OCHA Humanitarian Reports and reports from other humanitarian bodies.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The OHCHR webpage is a portal to international human rights efforts, and it connects to a wide range of materials on the whole range of human rights, including those issues that overlap with humanitarian rights such as torture and the use of mercenaries.

Directory of UN Resources on Gender and Women's Issues: Women and Armed Conflict
An initiative of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), this webpage links to a number of reports and Security Council resolutions related to the increasing victimization of women in areas of armed conflict.

Additional Research Guides

ASIL Electronic Research Guide: International Humanitarian Law
An exhaustive (65 pages) compilation of electronic resources in humanitarian law covering current and historical sources, primary law, and the most important organizations and courts dealing with IHL.

International Humanitarian Law guide, from the Peace Palace Library
Complied by the Peace Place Library at the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, one of the best collections of international law materials in the world. The research guide includes a valuable bibliography of IHL books and articles.

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