International Humanitarian Law

On this page:

  • Introduction to IHL
  • The ICRC's role in IHL
  • What this might mean for humanitarian managers

Introduction to IHL

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) - also known as the Law of Armed Conflict - is the body of rules which, in wartime, protects people who are not or who are no longer participating in the hostilities.  Its central purpose is to limit and prevent human suffering in times of armed conflict.  International humanitarian law covers two areas:

  • The protection of those who are not, or no longer, taking part in fighting

  • Restrictions on the means of warfare – in particular weapons – and the methods of warfare, such as military tactics.

A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.  Nearly every State in the world has agreed to be bound by them. The Conventions have been developed and supplemented by two further agreements: the Additional Protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts.  These documents can be found at

Other agreements prohibit the use of certain weapons and military tactics and protect certain categories of people and goods. These agreements include:

  • The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, plus its two protocols: click here

  • The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention: click here

  • The 1980 Conventional Weapons Convention and its four protocols: click here

  • The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): click here

  • The 1997 Ottawa Convention (on anti-personnel mines): click here

  • The 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict: click here

(If any of the above web links become unworkable, use a search engine to find the document you need.  Or right-click on the link, click Properties, and read the web address it points to, which may help you find what you need.)

International humanitarian law applies only to armed conflict; it does not cover internal tensions or disturbances such as isolated acts of violence. The law applies only once a conflict has begun, and then equally to all sides regardless of who started the fighting.  If not all the parties have ratified the Geneva Conventions, Customary Law still applies, with similar effect - the ICRC can advise on this if necessary.


The ICRC's Role in IHL

The ICRC acts as the guardian of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also sometimes known as the Law of Armed Conflict. It willingly offers advice on any aspect of IHL, for example:

  • The protection of civilians in armed conflict;

  • The protection of women, children, or internally displaced persons;

  • The rights of prisoners of war or civilian internees.

The ICRC's website, at, contains a wealth of information on IHL.  The IHL index page is


What this might mean for humanitarian managers

Click here for some thoughts on what the above might mean in practice for humanitarian managers

Tags: Advocacy