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Business and international humanitarian law – questions & answers


Questions and answers on the role of the ICRC in promoting IHL in business

The ICRC is well known as an independent humanitarian organization that protects and assists persons affected by armed conflict. What do businesses have to do with this?  

 Indeed, the ICRC is mandated by the Geneva Conventions to protect and assist people affected by armed conflict, and to promote international humanitarian law. To fulfil this mandate, the ICRC seeks constructive dialogue with all State and non-State actors who can influence armed conflicts. Since 2000, the ICRC has therefore been engaging with businesses on humanitarian issues, mainly with the aim of helping them understand their rights and meet their obligations under international humanitarian law.


Why should businesses be concerned about international humanitarian law?  

Although many businesses have adopted corporate policies to ensure they respect or even promote respect for human rights, the implications of international humanitarian law – essentially the laws of war – are quite distinct from those of human rights law, and the commercial world has not addressed this dimension yet. As businesses are increasingly operating in environments affected by armed conflict, their rights and obligations under international humanitarian law have become increasingly relevant. This body of law affords protection to the personnel, assets and capital investments of a business. At the same time, it imposes legal obligations on managers and staff, and can even render them responsible under criminal law. In the worst-case scenario, they could find themselves guilty of serious violations of international humanitarian law – war crimes.


Can a business be guilty of a war crime?

Businesses – including their personnel – operating in conflict zones run certain legal risks, in terms both of responsibility under criminal law for the commission of or complicity in war crimes and of civil liability for damages. International humanitarian law states that not only the perpetrators of violations, but also their superiors can be held criminally responsible for the commission of war crimes. For example, an arms dealer who sells weapons to a client knowing that they will be used to commit war crimes may be complicit in those crimes, regardless of whether he or she shares the client's intentions. Similarly, a business that provides (on a commercial basis) logistical support that is likely to facilitate the commission of violations of international humanitarian law may attract legal liability. The risk of corporate and individual responsibility for crimes perpetrated in an armed conflict is therefore becoming an increasingly important element in a company's assessment of the risks associated with its activities during such conflicts.


Does international humanitarian law also apply to private military and security companies operating in a conflict-affected environment?  

Yes. Ordinarily, private security firms hired by businesses for protection in a conflict zone are bound by the domestic law of the place where they operate. This usually permits security personnel to use force only when strictly necessary and in a manner proportional to the threat faced. If security personnel are drawn into the conflict, the use of force is then regulated by international humanitarian law and the applicable rules are different. Businesses that hire private security firms which do not comply with international humanitarian law while engaged in armed conflict may be held liable for assisting the commission of violations of this law.


What does the ICRC do to promote international humanitarian law to businesses?

Our activities include participating (as an observer) in processes that aim to promote respect for human rights and to mitigate the social impact of business projects. One such process is that of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights,which explicitly refer to international humanitarian law. Another example is cooperation with the Swiss government on an initiative to promote respect for international humanitarian law by private military and security companies operating in conflict situations. Yet another is bilateral discussions with businesses, at headquarters or operational level. A new ICRC publication, Business and international humanitarian law, aims to familiarize businesses with both their rights and their obligations under international humanitarian law.

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