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ICRC database on customary international humanitarian law: new update

18-11-2011 News Release 11/233

Geneva (ICRC) – On 21 November the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will make available its updated collection and analysis of practice from 27 countries – Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Fiji, Finland, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Libya, Nepal, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine and the United States of America – relating to armed conflicts and such issues of humanitarian concern as the distinction between combatants and civilians, the use of certain weapons, the protection of internally displaced persons, the legal framework for internment and detention in armed conflict, recruitment of child soldiers, and serious violations of international humanitarian law that amount to war crimes.

It will be the second time this year the ICRC has issued an update on national practice on its online database on customary international humanitarian law. The practice of a first set of 30 countries was updated last March. The organization set up the database in 2010 to complement the study on customary international humanitarian law it published in 2005 and to help ensure that the rules of that body of law, and the practice underlying them, are easily accessible to practitioners and researchers alike.

"In the current phase of the project, we are providing a basis for monitoring the development of this body of law by documenting and analysing State practice up to the end of 2007. We do this with materials from various sources, including national legislation and case law, official statements and reports and military manuals," said Els Debuf, the ICRC's head of project for customary international humanitarian law. "The formation of customary law is an ongoing process, as practice keeps evolving. That practice – both national and international – has to be updated regularly to identify the rules of customary law and assess the extent to which they enhance protection for victims of armed conflict by confirming or filling in gaps in treaty-based law."

Customary international humanitarian law is a set of rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. It is not necessary for a State to formally accept a rule of custom in order to be bound by it, as long as the overall State practice on which the rule is based is widespread, representative and virtually uniform. In non-international armed conflict – covered by relatively few provisions of treaty-based law – customary law is especially important.

The ICRC's online database builds on the study of customary international humanitarian law published by the organization in 2005, in which it identified 161 rules by which all parties to armed conflict must abide. The study is used by many institutions and entities dealing with the implementation of international humanitarian law or with alleged violations thereof, such as international and mixed criminal courts and tribunals, national courts and non-governmental organizations, but also United Nations treaty monitoring bodies, commissions of inquiry and special rapporteurs.

The development of the database and the regular updates of practice underlying the rules identified in 2005 are being carried out through a partnership between the ICRC and the British Red Cross. The source materials used for the updates are gathered by a network of ICRC delegations around the world and a number of National Red Cross Societies. These materials are then analysed and processed by a research team based at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge, under the supervision of the ICRC head of project. The information stored in the database is easily accessible by means of three search parameters: subject matter, type of practice and country.

The next update, set to be issued in the first half of 2012, will bring to around 90 the number of countries whose practice up to the end of 2007 has been included in the database. Further updates of both national and international practice covering the period 2008-2010 will be issued throughout 2012 and 2013. The aim thereafter is to update the database on an annual basis.

For further information, please contact:
Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18