Development of international humanitarian law

IHL comprises both treaties between States and customary international law, which stems from widespread practice followed by States out of a sense of legal obligation.


The ICRC plays the role of catalyst for the development of humanitarian law by organizing, or participating, in consultations on the possibility of adopting new rules; and preparing, or contributing to, draft texts for submission to diplomatic conferences. The ICRC may also organize consultations with a view to clarifying existing rules.

In line with this, the ICRC is preparing a draft resolution for the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross (November 2011) that will call for improved implementation of IHL and greater attention to the protection of people who are detained or interned. The draft will accompany a report on a study it has carried out in recent years on ways to strengthen legal protection for victims of armed conflicts. The study concludes that, while existing law generally remains an appropriate framework, action is required to strengthen it in four specific areas: the protection of detainees, internally displaced persons and the environment in armed conflict, and in the implementation of IHL.

Since September 2010, the ICRC has consulted numerous States on its study and has received broad support for its conclusions. However, States have expressed a preference for giving priority to the issues of the protection of detainees – in particular during non-international armed conflicts – and to the implementation of IHL. The results of these consultations will also appear in the ICRC report to the International Conference, where it is hoped that many other States will contribute to the debate.

Other topical developments

In 2005, after nearly 10 years of research and consultation, the ICRC published a study on customary international humanitarian law, identifying 161 rules that strengthen victim protection.

In 2008, more than 100 States adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of such weapons.  

Also in 2008, 17 countries agreed to the “Montreux Document”, to ensure that private military and security companies working in armed conflicts respect IHL and human rights law.

In 2009, the ICRC published its interpretive guidance on the notion of  “direct participation in hostilities", for which there is no precise definition in IHL.

The ICRC has also welcomed the renewed political momentum supporting the principle of a world free of nuclear weapons.