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Civilians protected under international humanitarian law

29-10-2010 Overview

During the past 60 years the main victims of war have been civilians. The protection of civilians during armed conflict is therefore a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. This protection extends to their public and private property. IHL also identifies and protects particularly vulnerable civilian groups such as women, children and the displaced.

During World War II, and in many of the conflicts since, civilians have been the main victims of armed conflict. Civilians have always suffered in war, but the brutal impact of World War II, which included mass extermination, indiscriminate attacks, deportations, hostage taking, pillage and internment, took a high toll of civilian life. The response of the international community was the Fourth Geneva Convention adopted in 1949.

Before 1949 the Geneva Conventions protected wounded, sick, shipwrecked and captured combatants. The “civilians’ convention” recognized the changing nature of warfare and established legal protection for any person not belonging to armed forces or armed groups. The protection also included civilian property. Such protection was later reinforced with the adoption of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention in 1977.

IHL provides that civilians under the power of enemy forces must be treated humanely in all circumstances, without any adverse distinction. They must be protected against all forms of violence and degrading treatment, including murder and torture. Moreover, in case of prosecution, they are entitled to a fair trial affording all essential judicial guarantees.

The protection of civilians extends to those trying to help them, in particular medical units and humanitarian or relief bodies providing essentials such as food, clothing and medical supplies. The warring parties are required to allow access to such organizations. The Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I specifically require belligerents to facilitate the work of the ICRC.

While IHL protects all civilians without discrimination, certain groups are singled out for special mention. Women and children, the aged and sick are highly vulnerable during armed conflict. So too are those who flee their homes and become internally displaced or refugees. IHL prohibits forced displacements by intimidation, violence or starvation.

Families are often separated in armed conflict. States must take all appropriate steps to prevent this and take action to re-establish family contact by providing information and facilitating tracing activities.

The protection of civilians provided by the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols is extensive. The problem of the past 50 years has been application. Neither States nor non-State armed groups have respected their obligations adequately. Civilians have continued to suffer excessively in almost every armed conflict.

In some conflicts civilians have been specifically targeted and subjected to terrible atrocities, ignoring the very basis of the Geneva Conventions, respect for the human person. It is for this reason that the ICRC continues to press States to respect and ensure respect for the principles of IHL, especially the protection of civilians.


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International humanitarian law - Civilians 

© ICRC / J. Nachtwey / ph-e-00198