Too often, it is the people not involved in the fighting who suffer the most from conflict and other violence.

They could be killed or wounded in large numbers, or be forced to flee through dangerous territory in search of safety. In many cases, homes, villages and – increasingly – even entire cities are destroyed, along with people’s means of feeding and sheltering themselves.

Protection enshrined in law

When mass violence erupts, civilians are extremely vulnerable and require protection. The ICRC strives to ensure that those involved in the fighting comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. For example, States must meet their responsibility to treat detainees humanely. Respect for family unity, dignity and physical and mental integrity are also central to these obligations.

Compliance with the law

The difficulty faced by the ICRC in trying to ensure protection of civilians in today’s conflicts cannot be attributed to shortcomings in humanitarian law. The real problem is the failure by the parties to the conflict to comply with these fundamental rules.

An ICRC staff member explaining the rules of international humanitarian law to members of an armed group in the remote Chocó department, Colombia.

Presence and dialogue

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols of 1977, civilians and anyone not taking a direct part in combat may under no circumstances be attacked. Rather, they must be spared and protected.

To help ensure that the safeguards embedded in these laws are respected, the ICRC endeavours to maintain a constant presence in areas where civilians are particularly at risk. We remind all parties concerned of the rules governing the conduct of hostilities, as well as the rules relating to the use of force in law-enforcement operations.

In the field

When our delegates are able to document violations of the law, they inform the authorities and ask them to take action to end the violations. Wherever possible, the delegates provide aid to people affected by the conflict. They also keep up a regular dialogue with all weapon-bearers, whether members of the armed forces, rebel groups, police forces, paramilitary forces or other groups.

Highest diplomatic levels

We also work at the highest diplomatic levels to ensure that civilians and detainees are protected. Diplomatic efforts often focus on specific humanitarian goals, such as delivering aid to people trapped in combat zones, gaining access to prisons and facilitating temporary humanitarian truces between the warring parties. These and other efforts help safeguard the fundamental rights of the people we strive to protect – rights that include access to health care and the ability to earn a living.

Even in peacetime, the ICRC maintains a constant dialogue with armed forces. We encourage them to incorporate the rules of humanitarian law in the planning and execution of military operations.

The ICRC raises humanitarian issues at the highest levels of government. Above, ICRC President Peter Maurer addresses the 12th assembly of States that have agreed to ban anti-personnel mines.

Promoting protection for detainees

People deprived of their liberty are in an extremely vulnerable position. This vulnerability is particularly acute in the event of armed conflict and other violence, when excessive use of force and deficiencies in prison life may be exacerbated.

The ICRC therefore works to prevent or end forced disappearances, summary executions, torture and other forms of ill-treatment. We restore contact between detainees and their families and act to improve conditions of detention when necessary and in accordance with international law and standards.

Private interviews

Regular visits to places of detention are crucial to our work to help detainees. On the basis of our findings, we submit confidential reports to the authorities and, if necessary, provide material or medical aid to the detainees.

During their visits, ICRC delegates conduct interviews with detainees in private. They note down the detainees’ details so that their cases can be monitored. The detainees describe any problems of humanitarian concern they may have.

The ICRC refrains from taking a position on the reasons for the detainees’ arrest or capture. We simply try to ensure that detainees benefit from the judicial guarantees to which they are entitled under international and domestic law.

Looking at the whole system

In advising prison authorities, we look not just at individual cases but also at deficiencies across the system that have an impact on the health and well-being of detainees. Our advice to authorities is therefore based on a thorough assessment of their detention system, including legislation, prison structures, management practices, the prison food chain and the quality of health care.

With the ICRC looking on, Afghan soldiers take part in training on how to treat detainees in accordance with international humanitarian law. The ICRC sometimes plays the role of observer during training exercises.

A recognized right

In international armed conflicts, the Geneva Conventions recognize the right of the ICRC to visit prisoners of war and civilian internees. Preventing our delegates from carrying out their mission is a violation of humanitarian law. In non-international armed conflicts, Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions authorizes us to offer our services to parties to the conflict. Many accept our proposal to visit detainees, in part because of our well-earned reputation in this field. In situations that have not reached the threshold of an armed conflict, we offer to visit detainees on the basis of the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

  • The ICRC helps displaced people and refugees, who often have to leave everything behind when they flee armed conflict or violence. These people left Syria for neighbouring Jordan in 2013.

  • During conflict, children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, an ICRC staff member talks to a young boy at a transit and orientation centre for children recruited into armed forces and armed groups.

Protecting the vulnerable

Among the civilian population, there are certain categories of people (women, children, refugees and displaced people) who are specifically protected by international law. Our efforts to protect these vulnerable groups focus on enhancing their ability to cope. We do our best to leave these people with the tools they need to live in dignity and safety.

Displaced people

Armed conflict often means large numbers of civilians are forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in their country. In most cases, displaced people have to leave behind all but a few of their possessions. They often lose the means of earning a living too. Given their extremely precarious situation, displaced people are among the main beneficiaries of our help.


People who flee across international borders, and are recognized as refugees, are entitled to protection and aid from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In such cases, the ICRC plays a support role, particularly where refugees are protected by humanitarian law. We also provide a Red Cross message service that helps refugees get back in touch with family members from whom they have become separated.


Because of conflict and other violence, children may be separated from their families, forced to leave their homes, killed, maimed, sexually abused or exploited. They may also be first-hand witnesses to atrocities committed against their parents or other family members.

And, despite protection by law, children continue to be recruited by armed forces and armed groups in some parts of the world. They often carry weapons and actively take part in the fighting. Or they may be used in other roles that put them in great danger, such as carrying supplies.

Help for victims of sexual violence

In certain crises, we provide post-rape kits. They contain emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, anti-retroviral drugs to prevent HIV transmission, treatments against sexually transmitted infections and vaccinations against tetanus and hepatitis B. We also give counselling to victims to help them recover from the psychological scars left by sexual violence.

Women and girls

The ICRC helps all victims of conflict. But women and girls have specific health, protection and other needs that we seek to address in our activities. We emphasize how women and girls must be protected in conflicts, and we raise awareness among fighters that sexual violence in all its forms is prohibited by humanitarian law.

When women are detained, we seek to ensure that their particular needs are met in accordance with international law.

Story of discovery

Beyond first aid

Antoinette Mkindo Mbila’s first encounter with the ICRC came in the late 1990s when war broke out in her country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was 18 years old. “The ICRC was helping reunite children separated from their families,” she recalls.

Nearly a decade later when war re-erupted, she saw the distinctive Red Cross emblem in action again. “I remember seeing men with Red Cross vests going into the bush, where a lot of people had fled because of the fighting, and taking out the injured on stretchers.”

Beyond the physical wounds

But as Antoinette got to know the ICRC further, she realized that we were concerned not only with treating the immediate wounds, but also the longer-term physical effects and psychological trauma caused by violence.

Antoinette had already founded an organization to promote women’s health and economic interests. In 2008, she decided to attend one of our courses to raise health and safety awareness among women who had been raped during the conflict.

Since then, Antoinette has trained as a psychosocial assistant and worked as head of a maison d’écoute, a place where women who have suffered from sexual violence can talk about it and receive counselling without fear of recrimination or stigma. “We have received very good training on how to identify the symptoms of sexual violence and come up with solutions,” she says.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the ICRC provided satellite phones to help people get in touch with loved ones.

Restoring family links

Every year, many thousands of families are separated by conflicts, natural disasters or the growing phenomenon of migration. People can suffer terribly when they lose contact with their loved ones, and don’t know where they are, if they are safe or even if they are alive.

The ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies work together around the world to locate people and put them back in touch with their relatives. We try to find family members, restore contact, reunite families and find out what happened to those who went missing.

Central Tracing Agency

These tasks are coordinated by our Central Tracing Agency, which was created for the purpose of restoring contact between family members dispersed by armed conflict and other violence. Hundreds of thousands of new cases – involving displaced people, refugees, detainees or missing people – are opened each year. Our Restoring Family Links website also allows people to make tracing requests easily as emergencies arise.

To learn more, see

Story of discovery

A former prisoner finds answers

When Dr Patricio Bustos was imprisoned in 1975 under the military dictatorship in Chile, he says visits from one of our delegates helped him avoid the fate of many of his compatriots.

“The fact that the ICRC registered me and told my family that I was alive helped to guarantee that I would not be killed,” he says. Now, more than 40 years later, Bustos is the director of Chile’s forensic service. One of their main tasks involves helping the families of those who disappeared during the dictatorship to get answers about their missing loved ones.

Today, Chile’s forensic service serves as a model for other States that are using forensic science to identify the remains of missing people. The ICRC is a key partner in these efforts, which have included identifying people killed in a devastating earthquake in 2010 and in a prison fire that claimed 81 lives in Santiago later that year.

Through his work with the ICRC, Bustos has gained an even deeper appreciation for the breadth of our humanitarian commitment. “Before the ICRC came to visit me in prison, I knew about their founder, Henry Dunant, and their work during wars. But visiting detainees, that was new to me,” says Bustos.

After the dictatorship ended in 1990, he says, the ICRC’s consistent support and neutral and impartial stance were critical to building the public’s trust in efforts to help families of the missing. Part of our work is reminding States, armed forces and armed groups of their moral and legal obligation to provide information that might help families find out what happened to missing loved ones.

Missing people: The right to know

Under international humanitarian law, States bear primary responsibility for preventing “disappearances” and meeting the needs of the families. We offer advice to governments on how to investigate cases of missing people. At the same time, we help manage human remains and support forensic investigations carried out to identify the dead. All along the way, we provide a helping hand to those families struggling for answers.

Stories of discovery

This is just one example of how people around the world come to discover the ICRC. And it shows how staff members such as Khaled work with local communities to discover new ways to meet our basic goal – alleviate the suffering caused by war. In this booklet, you will discover the ICRC through stories about people such as Khaled and through short explanations of exactly what the ICRC is, what we do, and how, when, where and why we take action.