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IHL and human rights law

29-10-2010 Overview

International humanitarian law and international human rights law are two distinct but complementary bodies of law. They are both concerned with the protection of the life, health and dignity of individuals. IHL applies in armed conflict while human rights law applies at all times, in peace and in war.

Both international humanitarian law and human rights law apply in armed conflicts. The main difference in their application is that international human rights law allows a State to suspend a number of human rights if it faces asituation of emergency. IHL cannot be suspended (except as provided in Article 5 to the Fourth Geneva Convention).

However, a State cannot suspend or waive certain fundamental rights that must be respected in all circumstances. These include the right to life, the prohibition of torture and inhuman punishment or treatment, the outlawing of slavery or servitude, the principle of legality and the non-retroactivity of the law and the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

States have a legal duty to respect and implement both IHL and human rights law. Compliance with IHL requires a state to introduce national legislation to implement its obligations, to train its military and to bring to trial those in grave breach of such law. Human rights law also contains provisions requiring a State to take legislative and other appropriate measures to implement its rules and punish violations.

IHL is based on the Geneva and Hague Conventions, Additional Protocols and a series of treaties governing means and methods of waging war such as those banning blinding laser weapons, landmines and chemical and biological weapons, as well as customary law.

International human rights law is more complex and unlike IHL includes regional treaties. The main global legal instrument is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Other global treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as treaties on the prevention and punishment of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, on the elimination of racial discrimination and discrimination against women, or on the rights of the child.

Regional human rights conventions or charters have been adopted in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and the Arab region.

In situations of armed conflict, human rights law complements and reinforces the protection afforded by International Humanitarian Law.


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