• World
  • Oct 20

Explainer - International Humanitarian Law

• Israel pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, including in the south where Palestinians were told to take refuge on October 19. 

• The Israeli military has relentlessly attacked Gaza in retaliation for the devastating Hamas rampage in southern Israel on October 7. 

• Even after Israel told Palestinians to evacuate the north of Gaza and flee south, strikes extended across the territory, heightening fears among the territory’s 2.3 million people that nowhere was safe.

• Palestinian officials had said 471 people were killed in the blast at Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital on October 17.

• Israel has put the Gaza Strip’s people under siege and bombarded the enclave in strikes that have killed thousands and made more than a million homeless.

• While aid workers serving conflict-affected civilian populations depend on a set of laws to protect them, some warring parties violate these global agreements, from targeting hospitals and schools to blocking aid workers from reaching civilians with lifesaving goods and services.

• India has called for strict observance of International Humanitarian Law in the context of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

• International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seek for humanitarian reasons to limit the effects of armed conflict. 

• IHL protects persons who are not or who are no longer participating in hostilities and it restricts the means and methods of warfare. 

• IHL is also known as the law of war and the law of armed conflict.

• A major part of IHL is contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. 

• These Conventions provide specific rules to safeguard combatants, or members of the armed forces, who are wounded, sick or shipwrecked, prisoners of war, and civilians, as well as medical personnel and civilian support workers of the military.

It requires, among other things:

i) The rapid and unimpeded passage for humanitarian aid during armed conflicts.

ii) The freedom of movement for humanitarian workers in conflict areas.

iii) The protection of civilians (including medical and humanitarian workers).

iv) The protection of refugees, prisoners, and the wounded and sick.

• 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.

• IHL distinguishes between international and non-international armed conflict. International armed conflicts are those in which at least two countries are involved. 

• Non-international armed conflicts are those restricted to the territory of a single State, involving either regular armed forces fighting groups of armed dissidents, or armed groups fighting each other.

• Hospitals, schools, civilians, aid workers, and safe routes to deliver emergency assistance are among people and places protected by the International Humanitarian Law.

The origin of International Humanitarian Law

• As French and Austrian armies fought the battle of Solferino in northern Italy in June, 1859, the idea of international action to limit the suffering of the sick and wounded in wars was born in the mind of Henry Dunant, a young Swiss citizen.

• Dunant found himself, more or less by accident, among thousands of French and Austrian wounded after the battle, and with a few other volunteers did what he could to ease their suffering. 

• Appalled by what he had seen, he then wrote a book ‘A Memory of Solferino’, published in 1862, in which he suggested that national societies should be created to care for the sick and wounded irrespective of their race, nationality or religion. 

• He also proposed that States should make a treaty recognising the work of these organisations and guaranteeing better treatment for the wounded.

• With four friends, Henri Dunant then set up the International Committee for Aid to the Wounded (later renamed as the International Committee of the Red Cross). 

• Dunant’s ideas met a wide response. In several countries national societies were founded and at a diplomatic conference in Geneva in 1864 the delegates of 16 European nations adopted the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.

• Known as the Geneva Convention, this agreement became the foundation of modern international humanitarian law, which now encompasses four conventions and three additional protocols. 

• Collectively, they represent modern efforts to protect people in times of armed conflict.

• Henry Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

Geneva Conventions

• The 1864 convention was ratified within three years by all major European powers as well as by many other countries. It was amended and extended by the second Geneva Convention in 1906. The third Convention was held in 1929.

• The first Geneva Convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war.

• The second Geneva Convention protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war.

• The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war.

• The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Second World War (1939-1945) provided compelling evidence of the need to bring International Humanitarian Law once again into line with the changing character of warfare.

• The events showed the disastrous consequences of the absence of a convention for the protection of civilians in wartime. 

• The Geneva Conventions, which were adopted before 1949, were concerned with combatants only, not with civilians. 

• In 1949, an international conference of diplomats in Geneva built on the earlier treaties for the protection of war victims, revising and updating them into four new conventions comprising 429 articles of law — known as the Geneva Conventions.

• Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions, marked a breakthrough, as it covered, for the first time, situations of non-international armed conflicts. Article 3 establishes fundamental rules from which no derogation is permitted. It is like a mini-Convention within the Conventions as it contains the essential rules of the Geneva Conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character.

• The Geneva Conventions apply in all cases of declared war, or in any other armed conflict between nations. They also apply in cases where a nation is partially or totally occupied by soldiers of another nation, even when there is no armed resistance to that occupation.

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions

• In the two decades that followed the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, the world witnessed an increase in the number of non-international armed conflicts and wars of national liberation. 

• In response, two Protocols Additional to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1977. 

• They strengthen the protection of victims of international (Protocol I) and non-international (Protocol II) armed conflicts and place limits on the way wars are fought. 

• Protocol II was the first-ever international treaty devoted exclusively to situations of non-international armed conflicts.

• In 2005, a third Additional Protocol was adopted creating an additional emblem, the Red Crystal, which has the same international status as the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems.

• Under the Geneva Conventions, the three distinctive emblems of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal are intended to identify and protect medical and relief workers, military and civilian medical facilities, mobile units and hospital ships during armed conflict.

• The 1949 Geneva Conventions have been ratified by all Member States of the United Nations, while the Additional Protocols and other international humanitarian law treaties have not yet reached the same level of acceptance. 

• However, many of the rules contained in these treaties have been considered as part of customary law and, as such, are binding on all States (and other parties to the conflict), whether or not States have ratified the treaties themselves.

Manorama Yearbook app is now available on Google Play Store and iOS App Store