International Humanitarian Law
International humanitarian law (IHL) - known also as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Law of War - is the body of international rules that in time of armed conflict protects those who do not, or can no longer, participate in hostilities, such as civilians, the wounded and prisoners of war. It also limits the methods and means of warfare that may be employed by parties to an armed conflict, prohibiting attacks on civilian populations and weapons that are indiscriminate or inhumane.
International Humanitarian Law regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its inhumanity. It does not regulate the circumstances in which a state may use force, or determine whether an armed conflict is legal, and its rules apply to all sides, regardless of who started the conflict. IHL also applies to both states and non-state actors involved in international armed conflict, although a more limited set of rules applies to armed conflict that takes place on the territory of a single state (known as armed conflict of a non-international character).
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols
The core of modern International Humanitarian Law is set out in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols Every state in the world has adhered to the Geneva Conventions and although not all states are yet parties to the two Additional Protocols of 1977, many of the rules set out in these instruments enjoy the status of customary international law applicable to all states.
Basic Rules of International Humanitarian Law
- The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property. Neither the civilian population as a whole, nor individual civilians, may be attacked. Attacks may only be made against military objectives.
- People who do not or can no longer take part in hostilities are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and psychological wellbeing. They must in all circumstances be protected and treated with humanity, without distinction. It is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or who can no longer take part in the fighting.
- Neither the parties to the conflict nor members of their armed forces have an unlimited right to choose methods and means of warfare. It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.
- The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Medical personnel and medical facilities and vehicles may not be attacked. Personnel wearing the distinctive emblem of the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Crystal on white backgrounds, and facilities and vehicles bearing the emblems, must be respected.
Ireland and IHL
Ireland is firmly committed to the effective application and further development of international humanitarian law. Ireland played an active role in the negotiation of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, recognising it as an essential means for bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious international crimes, including grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs of law (‘war crimes’).
Ireland was also one of a small core group of states that promoted the development of a new instrument of IHL on cluster munitions, a major international initiative that culminated in the negotiation and adoption by consensus of the Convention on Cluster Munitions at a Diplomatic Conference hosted by the Government of Ireland in Dublin in May 2008. The Convention was adopted at the Dublin Conference by 107 states and opened for signature on 3 December the same year at a Conference in Oslo. Ireland signed and ratified the Convention on 3 December 2008. The Convention entered into force on 1 August 2010 and the first meeting of States Parties took place in November 2010 in Laos.
In 2008 the Government established the national committee on international humanitarian law to advise it on matters of IHL, to provide a means of promoting the dissemination of IHL and to prepare for International Conferences. It meets regularly under the chairmanship of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Statement by the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva at the 31st Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 28 November 2011 (PDF 119kb) (opens in new window)