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New legal database launched to enhance protection for war victims

09-08-2010 News Release 10/140

Geneva (ICRC) – To mark the 12 August anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is launching a new database of the organization's major study of customary international humanitarian law.

  Customary IHL database

  Reducing the human cost of armed conflict (interview)

  ©Reuters/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi    

Developed in association with the British Red Cross, the database is designed to be used as a legal reference in international and non-international armed conflicts, including by courts, tribunals and international organizations. As one of the principal sources of international humanitarian law, customary law enhances the legal protection of victims of armed conflict.

" The majority of armed conflicts are non-international, and current treaty law doesn't regulate them in sufficient detail. Customary law therefore provides men, women and children caught up in such conflicts with essential protection. Respect for customary law reduces the human cost of conflict, " said Jean-Marie Henckaerts, the ICRC's head of project for customary law. " The new database is a significant step towards ensuring that the rules of customary international humanitarian law and the practice underlying them are easily accessible. "

Customary international humanitarian law is a set of unwritten rules derived from a general, or common, practice which is regarded as law. It is the basic standard of conduct in armed conflict accepted by the world community and is universally applicable. In contrast to treaty 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.

" The formation of customary international humanitarian law is a dynamic process, " continued Mr Henckaerts. The new database provides a means of following developments in the application and interpretation of the law. It facilitates r eflection and discussion and contributes to further clarification of the law.

The new customary international humanitarian law database features 50 per cent more content than the original study – a printed version would run to more than 8,000 pages. Divided into two parts, the first includes 161 rules which the original study assessed to be of customary nature. The second part contains the practice on which the conclusions in part one are based. The database offers practitioners and academics easy access to the rules of customary international humanitarian law identified in the ICRC study and gives them the opportunity to investigate underlying practice by means of three search parameters: subject matter, type of practice and country.

The database also contains new international materials, in particular international case law and United Nations material up until the end of 2007. As the formation of customary international humanitarian law is an ongoing process, regular updates, including of national practice, will be provided on the basis of contributions by ICRC delegations and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which will be processed by a team of lawyers based at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge.

Since its publication in 2005, the ICRC study* of customary international humanitarian law has been used as a legal reference in connection with international and non-international armed conflicts such as those in Israel and the occupied territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka. The ICRC uses the study in its dialogue with parties to conflict in order to identify rules by which combatants or parties must abide. The study has also been used by the United Nations, international and mixed criminal courts and tribunals, national courts and non-governmental organizations. For example, on the basis of practice collected by the study, the Special Court for Sierra Leone concluded that the recruitment of child soldiers is a war crime in non-international armed conflicts, thus enhancing the protection for children against being recruited and used as child soldiers.

For further information, please contact:
  Florian Westphal, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 2282

 * published by  Cambridge University Press.