31-03-2009 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 873, by Sylvain Vité
International humanitarian law does not contain precise enough criteria to determine which situations fall within its material field of application, as the reality of armed conflict is more complex than the categories anticipated by IHL. This article sets out to show how these categories can be interpreted in light of recent international legal developments, and examines various controversial cases of application.
Although international humanitarian law has as its aim the limitation of the effects of armed conflict, it does not include a full definition of those situations which fall within its material field of application. While it is true that the relevant conventions refer to various types of armed conflict and therefore afford a glimpse of the legal outlines of this multifaceted concept, these instruments do not propose criteria that are precise enough to determine the content of those categories unequivocally. A certain amount of clarity is nonetheless needed. In fact, depending on how the situations are legally defined, the rules that apply vary from one case to the next. By proposing a typology of armed conflicts from the perspective of international humanitarian law, this article seeks to show how the different categories of armed conflict anticipated by that legal regime can be interpreted in the light of recent developments in international legal practice. It also reviews some actual situations whose categorization under existing legal concepts has been debated.