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The origins of IHL

The origins of IHL
A painting of Bazeilles, a village in France, after violent clashes there between French and Bavarian soldiers. In the foreground, among the victims, are a woman and her child.

International humanitarian law is rooted in the customs and traditions of ancient civilisations and religions.

History shows us that there has always been war – often waged with great barbarity and resulting in immense suffering, but since the earliest of times, people have also set limits to what can and cannot be done during fighting in an effort to minimise suffering. From traditional wars in the Pacific, to Arab and Islamic traditions, to customs in Indonesia, Somalia and the Sahel – as long as wars have been fought, efforts have been made to protect people from the worst of its consequences.

However, modern-day international humanitarian law, while reflecting these traditional ideals, has a more recent origin story.

The codification of IHL into treaty law began in the nineteenth century. Since then, countries have agreed to a series of practical rules, based on the bitter experience of modern warfare. As armed conflict continues to evolve, so too do the rules that apply to them. For instance, the development of new weapons, such as exploding bullets and chemical weapons, have led to the introduction of rules to constrain or even prohibit their use.

In 1859, Europe was embroiled in war. It just so happened that on 24 June 1859, a Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant passed through a field in northern Italy, which had been the site of a deadly battle – the Battle of Solferino – between the allied French and Sardinian armies against the Austrian army – that day. He was not a soldier, or otherwise involved in the conflict, just a man on a business trip.

At the conclusion of the Battle of Solferino, more than 6,000 dead and 40,000 wounded – from both warring sides – were left strewn across the battlefield. The respective armies’ medical services were completely overwhelmed, with medical transport for the wounded almost non-existent and food and water scarce. The 9,000 wounded who could do so headed for the nearby village of Castiglione in search of food and water. Appalled by what he was witnessing, Dunant paused his business trip and with the help of local women cared for the wounded and dying for three days and three nights. Rendering assistance to all wounded soldiers on a neutral and impartial humanitarian basis.

‘tutti fratelli’ … ‘we are all brothers’

Upon his return to Geneva, Dunant wrote and spoke about his experiences in Solferino. He had a vision of creating a neutral, humanitarian organisation that could care for the wounded and dead in wartime. In 1863, he and a small group of colleagues formed a committee to realise this vision. This was the beginning of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In subsequent years – and with the assistance of the Swiss Government – the International Committee of the Red Cross grew into a truly global network, dedicated to rendering medical care and providing humanitarian assistance to people, regardless of religion, culture or nationality. Today, this network is known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the Movement), and it operates in all four corners of the globe, including in the most dangerous conflict zones.

In 1864, Switzerland brought together government representatives to agree on Dunant’s proposal for national relief societies to help military medical services. The first Geneva Convention was signed by 13 countries that year, becoming the founding text of contemporary IHL. Several more major diplomatic meetings took place over the years – in the Hague (1899 and 1907) and in Geneva (1906, 1929, 1949) – advancing the laws of war, until the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions in 1949 and their Additional Protocols in 1977. Over the years, and to this day, ongoing developments, debates and negotiations continue to build and strengthen international humanitarian law.

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