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Asymmetrical warfare from the perspective of humanitarian law and humanitarian action

31-03-2005 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 857, by Toni Pfanner

The fateful events of 11 September 2001 epitomized a situation that confronts the ICRC in its work in many conflict zones all over the world, namely asymmetrical warfare. The belligerants are unequal, they have disparate aims and employ dissimilar methods to pursue their tactics and strategies.


Toni Pfanner
Toni Pfanner is Editor-in-Chief of the International Review of the Red Cross. 

Warring parties are increasingly unequal and the principle of equality of arms does not apply to them. This asymmetry in warfare has many ramifications. The militarily weaker party is tempted to have recourse to unlawful methods of warfare in order to overcome the adversaries'strength. The expectation of reciprocity as a fundamental motivation for respecting the law is often betrayed and replaced by perfidious behaviour; covert operations are substituting open battles, " special rules " are made for " special situations " . The fight against international terrorism seems to constitute the epitome of this kind of warfare. " Elementary considerations of humanity " as enshrined in article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions however constitute universally binding rules for all - even unequal and asymmetrical - parties to any situation of armed violence. Furthermore, attacks on humanitarian organisations have showed that humanitarian relief may be contrary to belligerents'interests, or, even worse, that attacks on humanitarian workers may be part of their agenda. Humanitarian actors must be aware of these facts and adapt their work ing methods so as to be able to continue to provide impartial assistance, based solely on the needs of the victims of armed violence.  

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