International humanitarian law: Protecting people in armed conflict

Although there have been many violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in recent years, leading some to question its effectiveness, IHL continues to govern behaviour in armed conflicts, and does continue to protect people and restrict the way wars are conducted.

2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which have been universally ratified. The 33rd International Conference was therefore an opportune moment for the members of the Conference to reaffirm their commitment to IHL and to work towards its full application and implementation, especially at the national level.

An entire day of the Conference was dedicated to IHL. Participants had positive and pragmatic discussions, shared, learned, explored, and engaged in meaningful dialogue about key areas related to respecting and implementing IHL. You can find more information about the IHL commission below.

Related documents
• Resolution 1, “Bringing IHL home: A road map for better national implementation of international humanitarian law” and its background document (33IC/19/12.1)

The IHL commission consisted of opening and closing plenaries and the following five spotlight sessions.

  • 1. Influencing behaviour to enhance respect for IHL

    This session showcased various initiatives from around the Movement whose aim was to influence people to have greater respect for IHL. Participants also discussed how we might measure the impact of these initiatives. The session reiterated the role and purpose of IHL, and sought to understand the sources of influence on behaviour, how they can be interpreted and utilized, and how their effectiveness in promoting respect for IHL can be measured.

    Related documents
    The Roots of Restraint in War, ICRC, 2018
  • 2. IHL: Different people, different impacts

    While the text of IHL rules may be neutral, their application could still be experienced in different ways by different women, men, girls and boys. This session explored the extent to which respect or non-respect for certain IHL rules can have different impacts on women, men, boys and girls. It also considered what this means for States in terms of how they apply IHL. The session promoted the idea that the way civilians experience armed conflict can depend on who they are, and that armed conflict has different impacts on different women, men, girls and boys. Those different impacts could in turn have implications for how IHL could be better implemented. However, the discussion also underlined that more in-depth research and analysis is needed across a variety of contexts in order to better understand the different impacts.

    Related documents
    • Model pledge: IHL: Different people, different impacts
    • The ICRC’s pledge: Expert Meeting on Impacts of IHL on Different Women, Men, Boys and Girls
  • 3. Urban warfare

    Armed conflicts are increasingly fought in urban areas, having devastating effects on the civilian population. Respect for IHL is all the more challenging, and critical, when war is waged in urban areas due to the intermingling of the civilian population and military objectives. In particular, the use in cities of explosive weapons with wide area effects results in a high number of civilian casualties and entails a high risk of indiscriminate effects. The overarching aim of this session was to highlight the need to address the causes and consequences of urban warfare. It raised awareness of the direct and indirect humanitarian consequences of urban warfare and provided an overview of the key causes of harm to civilians.

    Related documents
    International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (33IC/19/9.7)
  • 4. IHL and new technologies

    New technologies of warfare are constantly changing the way armed conflicts are fought. This generates new types of risks for civilians and civilian infrastructure, raises new questions about how existing rules of IHL apply and whether new ones are needed; and in many instances, creates profound ethical dilemmas for society and for humanity. Cyber warfare, autonomous weapons systems and military applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning could, for example, lead to increasingly remote warfare; new vulnerabilities and unpredictable consequences for civilians and civilian infrastructure; a decreasing space of human control and judgement; and a faster pace of warfare. But new digital technologies could also help limit human suffering in armed conflict. This session sought to build awareness among the conference participants about the range of legal, ethical, societal and policy challenges posed by new technologies of warfare. It identified key concepts that can help States and other conference participants address these technologies in ways that reduce potential human suffering and ensure compliance with and respect for the rules and principles of IHL.

    Related documents
    International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (33IC/19/9.7)
  • 5. Voluntary reporting and sharing of good practices

    At this session, Conference participants shared examples, inspiration, practical support and tools to help States start or improve their voluntary reporting on IHL obligations and encourage more voluntary reporting. Participants created pitches for their governments on why to prioritize voluntary reporting on IHL. States and regional organizations presented their existing voluntary reports and shared their reasons for drafting voluntary reports. They learned about the process of drafting voluntary reports and were encouraged to consider signing a pledge on voluntary reporting on IHL in the next four years.

    Related documents
    Implementing International Humanitarian Law: From Law to Action, ICRC, 2016 (available in English only)
    National Committees and Similar Entities on International Humanitarian Law: Guidelines for Success, ICRC, 2019, in particular Annex 3 (p.72) containing a template for a voluntary report (available in English and French only)