International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts

06-12-2003 Report

Report prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, 2 to 6 December 2003


 Executive Summary  


The purpose of the ICRC's Report, entitled " International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts " is to present an overview of some current challenges to international humanitarian law (IHL), to generate reflection and debate on the issues identified and to outline prospective ICRC action in clarifying and developing the law in the time ahead. While the Report was primarily written to serve as a background document for the December 2003 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, it is hoped that it will be of interest to a wider audience as well.

The Introduction to the Report serves to place it in historical context and reiterates the ICRC's view that the main treaties and customary norms of international humanitarian law provide a bedrock of principles and rules that must continue to guide the conduct of hostilities and the treatment of persons who have fallen into the hands of a party to an armed conflict. It underlines that the Report deals with a limited number of challenges and that it should be seen as a " snapshot " rather than as a comprehensive picture of the current legal landscape.

The Contextual Background attempts to, very briefly, review ongoing and recent trends in practice that affect IHL application. Apart from international, non-international and " internationalized " internal armed conflicts, a major dev elopment since the last International Conference has been the launching of a global fight against terrorism as a result of the horrific events of September 11th, 2001. The Report notes that the fight against terrorism has led to a re-examination of the balance between state security and individual protections and that, in the ICRC's view, the overriding legal and moral challenge facing the international community today is to find ways of dealing with new forms of violence while preserving existing standards of protection provided for by international law.

The section on International Armed Conflicts and IHL emphasizes that the existing legal framework is on the whole adequate to deal with present day international armed conflicts. It also identifies several issues which give rise to the need for possible clarification of the law given that differing interpretations of some rules generate different results in terms of protection of civilians in practice. One such issue is the notion of " Direct Participation in Hostilities under IHL " , which was the subject of an expert seminar organized by the ICRC and the TMC Asser Institute in June 2003 (summarized in Annex 1 to the Report). Other issues related to the conduct of hostilities issues that the ICRC will be examining in consultation with IHL experts in the time ahead are the definition of military objectives, the principle of proportionality and precautionary measures. The concept of occupation will be the subject of further reflection as well. 

Increasing the protection of persons affected by non-international armed conflicts remains a major institutional priority for the ICRC. The Report's section on Non-international Armed Conflicts and IHL    outlines the institution's work in preparing the ICRC's Study on Customary I nternational Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts. The Study shows that many rules previously applicable in international armed conflicts are now binding as a matter of customary law in non-international armed conflicts as well. It is hoped that the Study will have the beneficial effect of facilitating knowledge of and clarifying the rules applicable to non-international armed conflicts.

Acts of transnational violence and the responses generated by them have not only re-focused international attention on IHL over the past two years, but have also led to a re-examination of the adequacy of this body of law in a way not seen for several decades. One of the main IHL-related issues being currently debated is whether the fight against terrorism is a " war " in the legal sense or not. As is well known, there is no uniform answer. The Report's section on IHL and Fight against Terrorism    outlines the different positions and provides the ICRC's current legal analysis of this issue.

 Improving Compliance with IHL , which is the title of the last section of the Report, remains a permanent institutional priority for the ICRC. This section outlines the proceedings and results of a series of expert seminars on this subject organized by the ICRC in collaboration with other organizations and institutions in Cairo, Pretoria, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Bruges, Belgium in the spring and summer of 2003. The aim of the seminars was to generate creative thinking and proposals on ways of operationalizing article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions which provides that states have a duty to " respect and ensure respect " for their provisions " in all circumstances " . The expert seminars provided a wealth of proposals - as outlined in Annex 3 to the Report – that will serve as the basis for future ICRC thinking and proposals in this area.

Finally, the very brief Closing Remarks reiterate the ICRC's view that international humanitarian law is a body of rules whose basic tenets, if applied in good faith and with the requisite political will, continue to serve their intended purpose - which is to regulate the conduct of war and thereby alleviate the suffering caused by war.

  •  See the summary of the workshop, jointly organised by the Swiss Government and the ICRC during the 28th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent