ICRC 2024 Opinion Paper - How is the term "Armed Conflict" defined in international humanitarian law?

The legal classification of armed conflict – determining whether a situation of violence is an international armed conflict (IAC) or a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) under international humanitarian law (IHL) – is key for understanding what rules of IHL apply to that specific context. The ICRC makes an independent determination of the facts and classifies situations for several reasons – including its role in working for the promotion of IHL applicable in armed conflicts as well as for the purposes of its operations.
Article 16 April 2024

The ICRC published an Opinion Paper in 2008 on the topic, which outlines how the notion of armed conflict has been interpreted in jurisprudence and doctrine since the drafting of the Geneva Conventions.

The 2024 Opinion Paper explains the ICRC's approach in legally classifying contemporary armed conflicts. It makes the ICRC's methodology for classification accessible and transparent for all who are interested in the subject.

Since 2008, the ICRC has observed several transformations with regard to how armed actors participate in armed conflicts. These transformations, as well as how the law adapts to them, are outlined in the 2024 Opinion Paper (see also the new Commentaries to Geneva Conventions and reports on "IHL and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts").

The Opinion Paper shares the methodology involved in determining several legal issues related to classification, including, for example, when an IAC or a NIAC exists and when it can be considered to have come to an end; the classification of an IAC by proxy; how to identify parties in conflicts that involve multinational forces; the classification of NIACs involving coalitions; the support-based approach; the incorporation of an armed group into a state Party; and the geographical scope of IHL during NIACs.

Conflict trends – 2024

The ICRC classifies armed conflicts solely on the basis of facts and legal criteria established in IHL. The trends obtained from this exercise are, for the ICRC, alarming. There are over 120 armed conflicts around the world, which involve over 60 states and 120 NSAGs. The ICRC has noted that the number of armed conflicts has steadily risen since the 1990s; worryingly, since the year 2000, the number of NIACs has tripled from under 30 to around 100; the number of IACs is also on the rise. This upsurge is the result of several factors (many of them discussed in this paper): armed groups sometimes split into factions and emerge as new, independent groups; partnered operations result in conflicts involving coalitions; and places affected by conflict become fertile ground for the further proliferation of armed conflict. The ICRC's largest operations take place in countries affected by armed conflicts; many of them have lasted decades.

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