The ICRC and weapon bearers*

29-10-2010 Overview

Those who actually carry the weapons, whether they are members of government armed forces or opposition groups, are in a position to wound or kill people or to themselves be wounded or killed. They are also in a position to either facilitate humanitarian action or hinder it. This is why the ICRC is so concerned to maintain and strengthen a dialogue that it considers a key part of its mandate to protect and assist people affected by war and other situations of violence.

All military operations and operations to maintain order fall within a legal framework that consists largely of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Defending national territory, protecting public institutions, maintaining order, taking part in international military operations – all these are the inalienable prerogatives of any State. Nevertheless, there are limits to the force that may be used. Among those limits are restrictions on the choice of weapons and tactics.

After over a century and a half of war-related operations and dialogue with all those bearing weapons, the ICRC possesses a considerable store of experience in how best to prevent violations of the basic rules of international humanitarian law. Essentially, this dialogue is intended to resolve matters of humanitarian concern or prevent problems from arising in the first place and to ensure ICRC access to all persons affected by war and other violent situations.

In the course of the organization's field operations, ICRC delegates engage in dialogue at checkpoints, in police stations and in barracks, and speak directly with officials further up the chain of command.

In less tense situations, in which the authorities show a desire for long-term cooperation with the ICRC, they can be helped to incorporate the relevant provisions of the law in their training and operations. The ICRC's delegates to the armed and security forces, former police or military officers, then support the authorities in building the necessary capacities  to implement this process. This, ICRC hopes, will bring about a change in the institutional functioning of armed and security forces, in particular in the conduct of operations and lead to lasting respect for the basic rules of humanitarian and human rights law.

Violation of basic legal rules – the most important being the right of all persons to life and to respect for their physical and mental integrity – remains a reality. It is not enough to merely know the law, since experience shows that several factors must be brought together if the use of force is to be in keeping with the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Among the key factors are:

  • firm commitment on the part of senior authorities
  • incorporating international treaties into national legislation
  • incorporating the relevant rules into codes of conduct and operational guidelines
  • carrying out practical exercises and using equipment suitable for the mission
  • setting up a system to punish those who violate the law
  • an effective chain of command.

A study published by the ICRC in 2003 on the roots of conduct in war confirms that people's fundamental rights will be respected only if commanders are determined to enforce the relevant rules among those who bear weapons. Over the past 20 years the ICRC has been boosting its support for the authorities in meeting their obligation to incorporate the relevant rules into codes of conduct and operational guidelines.


* By the term "weapon bearers" the ICRC means regular armed forces, police forces, paramilitary groups, armed opposition groups and private military and security firms. All are obliged to know and comply with the basic rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.



© ICRC / af-e-01078