International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is part of the body of international law that governs relations between States. IHL aims to limit the effects of armed conflicts for humanitarian reasons. It aims to protect persons who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities, the sick and wounded, prisoners and civilians, and to define the rights and obligations of the parties to a conflict in the conduct of hostilities.
The cornerstone of IHL is the Geneva Conventions. The first was signed by 16 countries in 1864. For centuries before then, rules had applied to the conduct of war, but they were based on custom and tradition, were local or just temporary. 1864 changed all that and began a process of building a body of law that is still evolving today. Protocols were added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977 and 2005, and a range of other international conventions and protocols covering specific areas such as conventional weapons, chemical weapons, landmines, laser weapons, cluster munitions and the protection of children in armed conflicts have developed the reach of IHL.
• Soldiers who surrender or who are hors de combat are entitled to respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity. It is forbidden to kill or injure them.
• The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Protection also covers medical personnel, establishments, transports and equipment. The emblem of the red cross, red crescent or red crystal is the sign of such protection and must be respected.
• Captured combatants are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions. They must be protected against all acts of violence and reprisals. They must have the right to correspond with their families and to receive relief.
• Civilians under the authority of a party to the conflict or an occupying power of which they are not nationals are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity, personal rights and convictions.
• Everyone must be entitled to benefit from fundamental judicial guarantees. No one must be sentenced without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court. No one must be held responsible for an act he has not committed. No one must be subjected to physical or mental torture, corporal punishment or cruel or degrading treatment.
• Parties to a conflict and members of their armed forces do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare. It is prohibited to employ weapons or methods of warfare of a nature to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.
• Parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare civilian population and property. Adequate precautions shall be taken in this regard before launching an attack.
General Principles on the Use of Weapons
Rule 70. The use of means and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 71. The use of weapons which are by nature indiscriminate is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 72. The use of poison or poisoned weapons is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 73. The use of biological weapons is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 74. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 75. The use of riot-control agents as a method of warfare is prohibited. [IAC/NIAC]
Rule 76. The use of herbicides as a method of warfare is prohibited if they:
(a) Are of a nature to be prohibited chemical weapons;
(b) Are of a nature to be prohibited biological weapons;
(c) Are aimed at vegetation that is not a military objective;
(d) Would cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which may be expected to be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated; or
(e) Would cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. [IAC/NIAC]
The International Committee of the Red Cross is regarded as the “guardian” of the Geneva Conventions and the various other treaties that constitute international humanitarian law. It cannot, however, act as either policeman or judge. These functions belong to governments, the parties to international treaties, who are required to prevent and put an end to violation of IHL. They have also an obligation to punish those responsible of what are known as “grave breaches” of IHL or war crimes.
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