This article explores the role of International Humanitarian Law in protecting civilians, POWs, and non-combatants worldwide.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict. The key sources of IHL are the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.Introduction The set of rules and regulations that limit the impacts and effects of an armed conflict is known as “International Humanitarian Law”. This is a branch of Public International Law and provides umbrella protection to all such persons who are not participating in the said war at a place,...

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict. The key sources of IHL are the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.


The set of rules and regulations that limit the impacts and effects of an armed conflict is known as “International Humanitarian Law”. This is a branch of Public International Law and provides umbrella protection to all such persons who are not participating in the said war at a place, either from the beginning or have ceased to participate in the hostilities. Another facet involved in these rules is the restriction that has to be imposed on the means and methods of warfare. It can be understood that International Humanitarian Law can also be termed the ‘law of war’ or, more precisely, the ‘law of armed conflict’ as it precisely describes what the rules prescribe.

International Humanitarian Law is also responsible for governing the relations between nations at large. It is imperative to note that there are per se, no statutes present that describe this law, and instead, there are agreements between the nations which are often termed as treaties or conventions. These customary rules include the general principles which are reiterated in the text and the general State practices which are considered to be legally binding.

Another important thing to understand to have a brief understanding of International Humanitarian Law is that the said law does not regulate the use of force by a State but rather how the armed conflicts might be permissible.

Brief History of International Humanitarian Law

In the ancient times, the number and frequency of wars was comparatively more than it is today. Even in those times, it was a general practice that the parties at war must adhere to some basic rules and regulations to abide by the concept of ‘fair war’. Thus it can be said that since ancient times, warfare has always been conducted in parlance with a certain set of principles and customs.

This being said, the codification of what is known as International Humanitarian Law today began somewhere in the 19th Century and states started agreeing on some basic guidelines which every state must follow while at war. Anything antithetical to those was to be considered a war crime and thus barred. However, it was also kept in mind that while giving importance and priority to humanitarian concerns, there must not be avoidance or ignorance of the autonomy of States at war, and thus military requirements must not be surpassed beyond a certain extent.

With the advent of time and the growth of the international community, several contributions have been made by the Member States in the development of the rules of war. These set of rules are cumulatively referred to as the International Humanitarian Law and the same has become a crucial aspect of the universal body of laws as it controls a very critical aspect that if not maintained legally might cancel the concept of human liberty and all rights at once.

Conventions and Protocols under International Humanitarian Law

International Humanitarian Law is contained in the following conventions and protocols as has been expressly explained below:

1. Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907

These conventions include the restrictions on means and techniques of how war is to be conducted. These are one of the two primary treaty origins of International Humanitarian Law. The provisions of these conventions cover rules for land warfare and are also referred to as the ‘embodying rules of customary law’. However, it is imperative to note one aspect regarding The Hague Conventions which is, the supersession of majority provisions contained in them by other treaties, and yet they continue to stay operative in regards to being the torchbearer conventions depicting the need for the imposition of restrictions on war and the desirability of avoiding war at the first place.

2. Geneva Conventions, 1949

The Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols contain the most important rules and regulations to regulate warfare. They are important for limiting the extent of barbarity that is practised during the war. By way of protecting all those people who are non-participants in the war, the Geneva Conventions lie at the core of International Humanitarian Law. Let us now analyse the 4 different Geneva Conventions:

i. First Geneva Convention-for wounded and sick soldiers on land during the war

This convention contains a total of 64 articles to protect the rights of the wounded and sick along with medical, and religious personnel. The Convention has also recognized certain emblems as distinctive and has also provided for separate hospital zones and model identity cards.

ii. Second Geneva Convention- for wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war

This Convention is important as it also replaced the Hague Convention 1907 for Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. It contains 63 articles and also is similar to the first Geneva Convention. It pertains to the war at sea and for instance, extends protection to hospital ships.

iii. Third Geneva Convention- for prisoners of war

The Geneva Conventions’ development was in parlance with the Red Cross by its founder Henry Dunant. This Convention is important as it played the role of replacing the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. It contains a total of 143 articles but the previous one had only 97. Thus, it can be said that this one is a more comprehensive convention covering the rights of prisoners of war. This convention also assisted in broadening the definition and scope of prisoners of war status. The most important aspect covered in this Convention is that it has established the principle of release of prisoners of war must be released and repatriated without any delay post-cessation of active hostilities.

iv. Fourth Geneva Convention- civilians, including in the occupied territory

This Convention contains 159 articles. The convention also contains the possible consequences of war without addressing the conduct of hostilities. The treaty emphasizes on status and treatment accorded to the protected persons and also creates a distinction between situations of foreigners on the territory and civilians in occupied territory. It also prescribes the obligations that are to be taken up by the Occupying Power for the civilian population. It also prescribes the humanitarian relief that must be further accorded to the civilians. Civilian internees are also to be treated as prescribed.

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions

Wars for national liberation and also national wars witnessed an upsurge after the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. For this reason, it became imperative to strengthen the framework for the protection of the victims of such national and international wars. For this reason, two Additional Protocols were adopted in the year 1977. Further in 2005, a third Additional Protocol was adopted. These three additional protocols focus on the following:

i. First Additional Protocol

Victims of International Conflicts are provided further protection by of provisions of the First Additional Protocol.

ii. Second Additional Protocol

This Additional Protocol included the victims of National Conflicts within the ambit of International Humanitarian Law and thereby accords protection to them as well with regards to the basic rights that they inherit.

iii. Third Additional Protocol

The third Additional protocol was adopted and it created an additional Distinctive Emblem, the Red Crystal. This emblem is accorded the same international status as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent emblems.

Application of International Humanitarian Law

The application of International Humanitarian Law comes into play only in cases of military conflicts and thus covers the parties that are engaged in the said war or armed conflict. The International Humanitarian Law has also prescribed the difference between international and non-international armed conflict. However, the gradual evolution of the International Humanitarian Law has only helped in comprehensively describing the nuances of war which have thereby included various types of international wars as well. Internal tensions and disturbances however which include for instance random isolated acts of violence, do not come under International Humanitarian Law. Another important fact is that the International Humanitarian Law applies to both parties equally and does not differentiate between the parties based on who started the war.


International Humanitarian Law can be termed one of the most important tools that are available to the international community as it guarantees the safety and protection of persons during wartime. This law is imperative as it maintains a guarantee that fair means shall be used in times of war. Additionally, it also states through its provisions that soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war shall be accorded the due rights that they deserve.

It thereby does the task of guiding the parties at war with regards to how to conduct war without adopting any such means which are unfair and curtail the rights of innocent civilians for instance. The idea is to continue to maintain humanity at times of war by way of providing avenues for the protection and safety of the parties thus concerned. Thus this branch of International Law is important for accentuating the essence of maintaining international peace and security.


[1] Geneva Conventions, Available Here

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross, Available Here

[3] Geneva Conventions, Available Here

[4] International Humanitarian Law, Available Here

[5] The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, Available Here

Snehil Sharma

Snehil Sharma

Snehil Sharma is an advocate with an LL.M specializing in Business Law. He is a legal research aficionado and is actively indulged in legal content creation. His forte is researching on contemporary legal issues.

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