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In what situations does humanitarian law apply? For whom is it intended and who does it protect?


Extract from ICRC publication "International humanitarian law: answers to your questions"


International humanitarian law is applicable in two situations; that is to say, it offers two systems of protection:

a) International armed conflicts   In such situations the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I apply.
Humanitarian law is intended principally for the parties to the conflict and protects every individual or category of individuals not or no longer actively involved in the conflict, i.e.:

  • wounded or sick military personnel in land warfare, and members of the armed forces'medical services;

  • wounded, sick or shipwrecked military personnel in naval warfare, and members of the naval forces'medical services;

  • prisoners of war;

  • the civilian population, for example:

  • foreign civilians on the territory of parties to the conflict, including refugees;

  • civilians in occupied territories;

  • civilian detainees and internees;

  • medical and religious personnel or civil defence units.

Wars of national liberation, as defined in Article 1 of Protocol I, are classified as international armed conflicts . b) Non-international armed conflicts    

In the event of a non-international conflict, Article 3 common to the four Conventions and Protocol II apply.

It should be noted that the conditions of application of Protocol II are stricter than those provided for by Article 3 . In such situations, humanitarian law is intended for the armed forces, whether regular or not, taking part in the conflict, and protects every individual or category of individuals not or no longer actively involved in the hostilities, for example:

  • wounded or sick fighters;

  • people deprived of their freedom as a result of the conflict;

  • the civilian population;

  • medical and religious personnel. 

Humanitarian law and non-international armed conflicts.  

 Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions is regarded as a sort of treaty in miniature   . Even including the provisions of Protocol II, the rules on internal armed conflicts remain less complete than those dealing with international armed conflicts. It has proven difficult to strengthen the system of protection in non-international armed conflicts in the face of the principle of State sovereignty.
The rules contained in Article 3 are considered as customary law and represent a minimum standard from which the belligerents should never depart.


What law applies to internal disturbances and other situations of internal violence? 

 International humanitarian law does not apply to situations of violence not amounting in intensity to an armed conflict. Cases of this type are governed by the provisions of human rights law   and such measures of domestic legislation as may be invoked.