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What is IHL?

What is IHL?
Phone screen with the text 'IHL International Humanitarian Law'
© Australian Red Cross

International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of universally-accepted rules that seek to limit, for humanitarian reasons, the effects of war.

The main purpose of IHL is to maintain some humanity in armed conflicts – saving lives, reducing suffering, and respecting basic human dignity. To do this, IHL protects people who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, including wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war, medical personnel or aid workers, and all civilians. It also restricts the means and methods of warfare by placing limits on the types of weapons and military tactics used in armed conflict in order to limit unnecessary suffering.

The following video helps to explain the rules of war in a nutshell:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Over the next few weeks, you might see or hear us refer to international humanitarian law a number of different ways: IHL, the laws of war, the law of armed conflict. These terms are synonymous and interchangeable – they all refer to the special set of rules that govern situations of armed conflict.

Throughout history, most (if not all) cultures have restricted the way wars are waged. IHL is a modern-day extension of this notion. It can be found in binding, formally concluded agreements between countries – treaties or conventions – as well as in customary international law, which are non-treaty-based rules that become legally binding on account of State practice.

The first IHL treaties date back to the 1800s. Since then, numerous treaties have been introduced to define and develop the humanitarian protections relevant during conflict. The most significant sources of IHL are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977.

As a testament to the accepted nature of these laws, all countries have ratified the Geneva Conventions, and the vast majority are parties to the 1977 Additional Protocols. IHL is, therefore, a uniquely universal code of law that establishes minimum humanitarian standards, which all actors – government, military, humanitarian and private alike must respect.

While IHL applies to situations of armed conflict, it important to remember that it does not regulate the right to go to war. Rather, this is governed by an important, but distinct, area of international law which is set out in the United Nations Charter. Instead, IHL regulates how a war is waged – what can and cannot be done during armed conflict – rather than how or why war begins.

In later modules we will discuss what some of these crucial substantive rules are and the fundamental principles that underpin them.

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