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Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: International Humanitarian Law

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute's Guide to Human Rights and Humanitarian Law


Humanitarian law or the law of warfare is applicable during armed conflicts. There are several branches of humanitarian law: means and methods of warfare, which limits certain types of weapon, how they are used, and soldier’s conduct (a distinction is drawn between military targets and civilians); protection of persons, whereby sick, wounded and shipwrecked combatants no longer taking part in the armed conflict and prisoners of war and civilians are entitled to protection; and cultural property, which if not protected means damage to the cultural heritage of mankind.

When humanitarian law is violated, it is the state which primarily must be held responsible. There are limited possibilities to bring a state before an international court. However, an individual responsibility can be claimed before the International Criminal Court (war crimes).

The applicability of humanitarian law presupposes a classification of the armed conflict at stake, namely:

International armed conflicts (i.e. an armed conflict between sovereign states), where humanitarian law will be applicable to its full extent;
Non-international armed conflicts (i.e. an armed conflict between a state and insurgent actors), where a limited number of rules are applicable;
Internal disturbances and tensions (such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature), where humanitarian law is not applicable.


International Committee of the Red Cross


International humanitarian law is based on a large number of treaties, in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, and a series of other conventions and protocols covering specific aspects of the law of armed conflict. There is also a substantial body of customary law that is binding on all States and parties to a conflict