International humanitarian law and policy on

Dialogue with weapon bearers

It is those who carry weapons who can kill – and be killed. It is also they who can facilitate or hinder humanitarian action. The ICRC therefore maintains a dialogue with all weapon bearers, State and non-State, as part of our mandate to protect and assist people affected by war and other violence.

An ICRC staff member in dialogue with an individual about the principles of international humanitarian law.

Dialogue with regular armed forces

Maintaining a dialogue with the armed forces is an integral part of ICRC’s operations around the world. The aim is to ensure that all levels of the armed forces know and apply IHL and Human Rights law in their operations and facilitate humanitarian action for the victims of conflict.

Most ICRC field personnel are engaged in dialogue with the military in some way, whether at check-points, in visits to detainees held at military barracks or when trying to find the whereabouts of missing people. Additionally, 32 specialized delegates, most of them former military officers, are stationed in selected delegations around the world, covering one or more countries in their respective regions in an ongoing dialogue. In the event of an armed conflict or a disaster, when issues of coordination are raised between the military and the Movement, the ICRC may reinforce its specialized presence. All ICRC personnel contribute to the dialogue with armed forces within a unified framework for relations with all arms carriers.

ICRC delegates to the armed forces facilitate the organisation’s understanding of the military as well as its networking with key individuals at different levels. They also facilitate ICRC's operations by providing the military with an understanding of the organisation's mandate, its modus operandi and its activities, as well as of the applicable legal framework. This is done by taking part in conferences, exercises or pre-deployment briefings.

Specialized delegates support the efforts of armed forces to disseminate IHL or IHRL, to integrate these norms into their doctrine, education and training and to adopt disciplinary and penal sanctions in the event of violations. They support ICRC colleagues or engage directly in dialogue with armed forces on the conduct of hostilities or of law enforcement. Delegates in the field are supported in their dialogue by a specialized unit at headquarters: ICRC's unit for relations with arms carriers.

Dialogue with police and other law enforcement officials

It is important for the ICRC to maintain a dialogue with law enforcement officials in armed conflict and other situations of violence, as they are the ones who are responsible for maintaining public order and security and assisting people in need of help. To fulfil their duties, they can use force and firearms, arrest and detain people, and search and seize property. How they exercise these powers can have a major impact on people affected by violence or conflict. 

Engaging in dialogue with law enforcement officials can be challenging, especially in an ever-changing context. Protracted conflicts and unrest often occur in populated areas, putting the civilian population at risk. Military and law enforcement officers find themselves having to carry out law enforcement in armed conflict. Urban violence is also growing in other situations of violence. Recent technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons have brought new challenges for commanders who need to ensure that law enforcement operations comply with international human rights law. The ICRC must take into account the complexity of these situations when engaging in dialogue with law enforcement officials and examining how they can exercise their powers in such contexts. 

The work of law enforcement agencies can also affect that of the ICRC. Officers can facilitate or impede the ICRC's access to victims and have a positive or negative impact on our security in situations such as checkpoints, places of detention and violent public disorder. Our aim is to remind law enforcement officials of their obligations under domestic and international law and enhance their understanding and acceptance of the ICRC’s work. 

Law enforcement officers are often the first people contacted by victims of violence, but they can also become victims themselves. Since they represent the state and are extremely visible, they can become targets of public anger during unrest or be attacked by criminal gangs, armed groups or even state armed forces in armed conflict. 

The ICRC has adopted the unique approach of hiring former law enforcement and military officers to discuss legal issues with law enforcement officials. International human rights law usually applies to law enforcement operations, but police forces may also be subject to international humanitarian law during armed conflict if they officially become part of the armed forces or participate in hostilities in some other way. In other situations, military forces may find themselves operating under the rules of human rights law or police officers may continue to be involved in law enforcement during a conflict. In these kinds of cases, the ICRC discusses with officers how they can exercise their powers and discharge their responsibilities towards the population while taking into account the shifts between humanitarian law and international human rights law. 

The work of law enforcement officers is very different from that of soldiers. Their duty is not to neutralize an enemy, but to maintain public order and security and to serve and protect the population – a population that they are also members of as civilians. Officers can work alone or in pairs and they have a certain amount of leeway when deciding how to react to an incident. This must be taken into account in their training and the equipment they are provided with. For example, their equipment must allow them to put in place a graduated response and avoid harming bystanders. Certain weapons used by the armed forces are therefore inappropriate for law enforcement, which requires protective equipment and less lethal weapons. While the ICRC does not supply equipment, we work with partners to highlight areas where additional equipment can help curtail humanitarian concerns. For instance, providing police officers with protective equipment may reduce the need for them to use force. 

The ICRC’s police and gendarmerie delegates engage in dialogue with military, police, and security forces who are involved in law enforcement operations in contexts that can lead to tensions and give rise to humanitarian concerns, such as checkpoints, large-scale demonstrations, disarmament campaigns, and election security. We exchange with law enforcement officials at all levels, from officers working in police stations and barracks to senior officials and commanders. Our role is to remind law enforcement agencies of their responsibilities towards the people affected by their operations. We also promote understanding of the neutral, independent and impartial work that the ICRC carries out to ensure the security of people at risk. 

Our police and gendarmerie delegates are former police officers, which puts them in an ideal position to analyze situations and provide advice to law enforcement officers. The ICRC draws upon their experience to effectively promote the values and norms of human rights and humanitarian laws and help authorities incorporate them in their approach, education, training, equipment and sanctions. Ultimately, the aim is to create an environment that promotes compliance with the basic rules of human rights law in law enforcement.

From the International Review of the Red Cross

Dialogue with armed groups

For the past years, the ICRC estimated that tens of millions of people lived in areas controlled by non-state armed groups and thus outside of regular services provided by state-run governance systems. An additional but unknown number of people delve in contested areas where states and armed groups compete for control. In situations of armed conflict or other situations of violence, people living in these areas are vulnerable and in need of protection and assistance. 

Throughout its history, and across the world, the ICRC, pursuant to its mandate and fundamental principles of neutrality and impartiality, has sought to engage with all parties to a conflict in order to secure access to vulnerable populations for essential needs and services. The dialogue with all weapons bearers, be they State or non-state actors, is a cornerstone of our work as a neutral and impartial humanitarian actor. 

The ICRC's right to offer its services does "not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict", as stated explicitly in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions. From a practical point of view, acceptance of an ICRC offer of services by an armed group can only come about as a result of a dialogue and a relationship of trust.