Contemporary challenges to IHL – Respect for IHL: overview

29 October 2010

All States and other parties to an armed conflict have an obligation to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) in all circumstances. They must use their influence to prevent and end violations of IHL, and refrain from encouraging violations by other parties.

Armed conflicts continue to afflict many parts of the world bringing devastation and destroying human life and dignity. Most are non-international in character and involve serious breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL). Civilians are the main victims. They face displacement, injury and death.

All too frequently civilians are targeted, used as shields or their means of survival – water, food and shelter – are destroyed. Women, children and other vulnerable groups suffer most.

These facts clearly show the need for a more rigorous and effective implementation of international humanitarian law in order to preserve human life and dignity. Responsibility for this falls on all States and other parties to an armed conflict.

The ICRC is convinced that respect and effective implementation of IHL is essential in today's armed conflicts whether they are traditional inter-State wars or the increasing number of internal, non-international armed conflicts.

The problem of preserving human life and dignity in these situations does not come from a lack of rules governing warfare, but from a failure to respect those rules.

For this reason, the ICRC works constantly to secure greater compliance with the law starting with the primary obligation on all Sates and other parties to an armed conflict under article 1 of the Geneva Conventions to respect and ensure respect for IHL.

Preventing violations can be achieved individually, or collectively through multilateral mechanisms and international organizations such as the United Nations.

The ICRC is particularly concerned to see reversed the trend of parties to a conflict to deny the most fundamental guarantees of protection to persons in their power.

These fundamental guarantees are enshrined in treaty-based and customary law and are inalienable. Everyone in the power of a party to a conflict is entitled to humane treatment without adverse distinction based on such criteria as race, colour, sex, language, religion, national origin or social status.

These fundamental guarantees prohibit such acts as torture, degrading treatment, collective punishments, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, slavery, hostage taking and unfair trials.

The ICRC also wants to see greater respect for the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants, and the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities.

Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under IHL. Methods and means of waging war are limited and should not cause disproportionate damage. This limits the use of certain weapons and tactics.

Incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and destruction of civilian objects must not be out of proportion to the direct military advantage expected from an attack.

Terrorizing civilians or using them as shields is clearly unlawful.

These points were strongly reaffirmed in a resolution prepared by the ICRC and adopted by the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2007.

The resolution reasserted the obligation of States to adopt all legislative, regulatory and practical measure to incorporate IHL into domestic law and practice. Proper training of those required to enforce IHL is also essential. The ICRC supports States in these efforts.

The ICRC is also pressing States to end impunity, which serves neither justice nor reconciliation after a conflict. States need to create a domestic legal framework for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes and for the extradition of suspects. Such frameworks need to include effective sanctions against wrongdoers, which act as a deterrent, and appropriate compensation for victims.