The ICRC aims to contain the harmful effects of armed conflict on people’s lives and dignity by strenuously reminding all parties to a conflict that even in times of war, there are rules that must be followed.

The rules of war are contained in a body of law generally referred to as the law of war, or international humanitarian law. The purpose of this law is to prevent and limit human suffering in the event of armed conflict by requiring States and non-State armed groups to use force with restraint, and only to the extent necessary to weaken the military potential of the enemy.

Promoting respect for the rules of war

The rules of war must be observed not only by governments and their armed forces, but also by organized non-State armed groups. For this reason, we work with all parties to a conflict to make sure they understand their obligations under humanitarian law. In promoting the whole range of humanitarian law, we seek to prevent – or at the very least limit – the worst excesses of war.

An ICRC staff member talking about international humanitarian law to soldiers in Nigeria.

An ICRC delegate explaining international humanitarian law and human rights law to soldiers and police officers in the Central African Republic.

Getting the message to the front lines

When widespread violence broke out in the Central African Republic in 2014, the ICRC’s first mission was to bring first aid to the wounded and vital relief for people displaced by the fighting. We did this by working closely with the Central African Red Cross and other members of the Movement.

As in many conflicts, alongside our aid operations we worked to prevent or at least minimize the suffering of people caught in the crossfire. To do so, we engaged in regular dialogue with all parties to the conflict and sought to persuade them to comply with humanitarian law.

As the conflict wore on, we met with members of the international forces, the national military, armed groups, the gendarmerie and police, as well as armed civilians to promote greater respect and protection for the wounded, the sick and detainees, and the civilian population in general.

In an environment steeped in feelings of anger, hatred and vengeance, the task can be daunting. “It will take time,” says Jean-François Sangsue, head of the delegation in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. “But we must never tire of explaining and promoting compliance with humanitarian law. Better knowledge of the law can stop people from breaking it.”

State armed forces

States have a legal obligation to ensure that their armed forces are fully versed in the law of armed conflict at all levels of the chain of command. They must also ensure that these rules are applied in all situations. The ICRC promotes the respect of international humanitarian law and its implementation in domestic legislation, and helps States fully incorporate it into military doctrine and training.

Non-State armed groups

Most of today’s armed conflicts are non-international and involve weapon-bearers who may have little or no formal training. We endeavour, therefore, to establish relations and build contacts with all parties to a conflict, including non-State armed groups. In this way, we can raise awareness of humanitarian law and the activities and working methods of the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. By increasing the safety of humanitarian workers, we make it easier for them to reach the victims of conflict.

Law enforcement agencies

We also work regularly with police and security forces as they are often called upon to intervene in armed conflict and other violence. We explain our work, and seek to ensure that these forces receive training in how humanitarian and human rights law apply in law-enforcement operations.

Global arena

Our headquarters and delegations engage in humanitarian diplomacy at the national, regional and global levels. We raise issues of concern with those who have influence over critical issues, such as the fate of people caught in the fighting, the delivery of humanitarian aid and access to places of detention.

Eye on the future

We also do our best to raise awareness of humanitarian law in the media, schools and universities, and companies (including those operating in areas of fighting). By raising awareness among the public, we hope to increase the level of respect for and compliance with humanitarian law.

Towards a more humane future

The original Geneva Convention was signed by representatives from 16 countries in 1864. Since then, the ICRC has played a central role in promoting and developing international humanitarian law, which protects people during conflict and enshrines their right to humanitarian aid.

We continue to play an active role in developing new rules to reduce human suffering, while striving to ensure that the existing rules are upheld. Warfare and weaponry have changed. But the international community is more aware of the suffering caused by war, in part because of work by the ICRC and other members of the Movement.

Putting the law into action

In 2011, for example, the Movement and the States party to the Geneva Conventions adopted a four-year action plan drawn up by the ICRC. The plan aimed to improve access by civilians to humanitarian aid and enhance protection for certain categories of people, such as children, women, people with disabilities and journalists.

Humanitarian law treaties

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the three Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 are complemented by other important treaties. These include treaties that prohibit the use of weapons that cause unacceptable harm, such as: exploding bullets (1868), expanding bullets (1899), chemical and biological weapons (1925, 1972 and 1993), munitions using undetectable fragments (1980), blinding laser weapons (1995), anti-personnel mines (1997) and cluster munitions (2008). There are also treaties that limit the use of certain weapons, for example incendiary weapons (1980), without prohibiting these weapons outright.

New weapons, new means to wage war

Despite the changing nature of warfare and weaponry, humanitarian law must be complied with at all times. Yet applying existing rules to a new technology is not always straightforward. Are the rules sufficiently clear about this technology? What will be its impact? The ICRC regularly contributes to discussions about these weapons and the challenges they pose to humanitarian law.

The founding of the ICRC is directly linked to the signing in 1864 of the original Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. The convention laid the foundation for a body of law that protects people in wartime.

The ICRC addresses a European Union meeting in 2014 on ensuring protection for health-care workers and facilities.

  • A sign warning of the danger of unexploded ordnance in Lebanon.

  • Unexploded bombs in Laos before they were safely destroyed by bomb disposal experts.

Limiting the human toll of war

Our concerns about weapons are strictly humanitarian. Throughout our 150-year history, we have drawn on our first-hand observations in the field to alert States to the unacceptably high cost in human terms of certain weapons. Under our mandate to protect and help the victims of armed conflicts or other violence, we have called on States to develop new international rules to address this problem.

Appeals to States

Some examples: in 1918 we appealed to States to ban poison and asphyxiating gases (which led to the adoption of the 1925 Geneva Protocol); in 1945 we first called on States to prohibit nuclear weapons; in 1994 we called on the States party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to prohibit blinding laser weapons; in 1994 we called on States to prohibit and eliminate anti-personnel landmines; and in 2000 we called on States to deal with the suffering caused by mines and unexploded ordnance. This led in 2003 to CCW Protocol V, which made States responsible for recording and sharing information about areas contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance, and clearing contaminated areas.

Private security forces

In recent years, private military and security companies have increasingly provided services in conflict zones. These range from logistical support to managing facilities, and in some cases direct participation in hostilities. Along with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, we launched an initiative that led to the adoption of the Montreux Document in 2008. This reiterates the legal obligations of States and private companies, and sets out how States can best promote compliance with humanitarian and human rights law during armed conflict.

Regional treaties

We also provide advice and support in drafting major regional agreements that protect people affected by conflict. In 2009, for example, the African Union adopted the Kampala Convention, the first international treaty ever adopted across an entire continent for protecting and helping displaced people.

Domestic legislation

Through our advisory service on international humanitarian law, we encourage States to pass domestic legislation to give force to humanitarian law.

El-Ghassim Wane, director of the African Union’s Peace and Security Department

Working with the ICRC was extremely helpful. We were able to combine their expertise in landmines with our ability to bring Member States together. Since then we have continued to work together on a range of issues, especially humanitarian law.

Health care in danger

In armed conflicts, safe access to health care is often among the first casualties. The sick and wounded cannot get the medical attention they need for a number of reasons: they cannot travel around freely because of the fighting; ambulances that should collect them are held up at checkpoints; health-care facilities where they should be treated are damaged or destroyed; and the health personnel who should attend to them may be killed or forced to flee.

Attacks on medical facilities and workers in countries where health care is already under pressure prevent thousands of people every year from being seen by doctors or receiving life-saving vaccinations.

The right to provide care

International humanitarian law and international human rights law protect the sick and wounded and those who care for them. Sadly, these rules are often disregarded. For this reason, the Movement launched the Health Care in Danger project in 2011. It aimed to ensure safe access to health care for people living amid armed conflict and other emergencies and to improve safety for workers bravely trying to provide medical services.

Across the board

The project covered all the key areas of our work – protection, assistance and prevention – and had many features: research to assess the scope and nature of the violence; practical steps to make health-care workers and facilities safer; public statements calling attention to violations and patterns of abuse; and a public-awareness campaign. And we worked hard to persuade governments to improve laws – and enforce those laws – to protect patients and those caring for them.

Partnerships for safe health care

The ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worked with many governments and international organizations, such as the United Nations, the African Union and the World Health Organization, to make the project a success. We also teamed up with professional bodies, such as the World Medical Association, the International Council of Nurses and the International Committee of Military Medicine, to produce recommendations that could ensure safer access to and delivery of health care in armed conflicts.

Catalina Martin-Chico is the winner of the first ICRC Humanitarian Visa d’or photojournalism award (23rd “Visa pour l’Image” International Photojournalism Festival – September 2011 – Perpignan, France).

At the ICRC, we get our message across in many ways, including our live RSS feed, Twitter account, Facebook page and website ( We also work with news organizations to raise awareness about humanitarian concerns and to promote the safety of journalists working in war zones or other areas of violence.