Development of modern international humanitarian law

13-05-2010 Overview

Efforts to regulate warfare have existed to a greater or lesser extent throughout history. But these remained temporary, local arrangements, until the middle of the 19th century when the newly-created ICRC encouraged the adoption of the first Geneva Convention.


Geneva 1977 - The signing of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions
© ICRC / G. Leblanc / cer-n-00025-18

Prior to the 1860s, rules of warfare were either decreed by rulers and commanders or agreed on between belligerents in order to satisfy contemporary needs and convenience. While in some cases they aimed to protect vital resources such as wells, or persons such as soldiers and defenceless non-combatants, they did not usually prohibit practises that modern society would find unacceptable.

The first attempt to bring together existing laws and customs of war in a document, and to impose them on an army in battle, was the "Lieber Code" (1863). This was intended solely for Union soldiers fighting in the American Civil War, and as such did not have the status of a treaty.

The following year, at the urging of the ICRC (founded in 1863), States agreed on the Geneva Convention, a set of ten articles that laid down rules designed to ensure that all soldiers wounded on the battlefield – whatever side they were on – were taken care of without distinction.

The Convention also established the neutrality of medical personnel and adopted a single, neutral emblem to protect them and the medical facilities treating the wounded: the red cross on a white ground. (The red crescent emblem was introduced in the 1870s.)

The role of the ICRC

Since then, the development of both the ICRC and what became known as international humanitarian law (IHL) has remained closely entwined. As the ICRC's own role evolved, bringing it into direct and continuous contact with the realities of war, it constantly urged governments to expand the reach of the law, which gradually came to cover warfare at sea, prisoners of war and civilians.

The scope of the Geneva Convention reflected the ICRC's own concerns, which centred on the needs of war victims. But towards the end of the 19th century, in a separate stream of law, governments began to introduce international rules (the Hague Conventions) governing the way wars were conducted.

Towards the end of World War I, the ICRC appealed for an end to the use of chemical warfare. The discussions that followed led to the adoption of a treaty (1925) to outlaw chemical weapons – a set of rules still in force.

The ICRC's intensive efforts, after World War I, to expand the protection of war victims resulted in a new Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war, in 1929. But It was unable to persuade governments to adopt a treaty covering civilians before the outbreak of World War II, thus leaving tens of millions of people without specific protection.

Breakthrough of 1949

The breakthrough on this issue came after the war, when governments adopted the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. These re-wrote the existing Conventions and added a fourth, for the protection of civilians who found themselves under enemy control.

In 1977, after much preliminary work and persuasion by the ICRC, governments adopted Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions, which combine elements of Hague and Geneva law.

Among their many major innovations, the Protocols include provisions to protect civilians from the effects of hostilities – for example by outlawing attacks that could affect civilians indiscriminately. Protocol I deals with international armed conflicts, Protocol II with conflicts of a non-international nature.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 have been adopted by every country in the world; the Protocols have very broad acceptance and their provisions are considered as customary law.

Ensuring implementation of the law

Since the 1980s, the ICRC has put its energies into measures to encourage governments to implement IHL and to teach its provisions at relevant levels within the state administration – notably, within the armed forces. The ICRC also works with governments and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to promote knowledge of the law in academic circles, youth and the media.

The red cross and red crescent emblems are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. In order to make the protection they represent more easily acceptable to a diverse global audience, an additional emblem – the red crystal – was introduced in 2005, in Protocol III additional to the Geneva Conventions.