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IHL: The Last Line of Defence for Human Dignity

Through this article we would try to understand what is International Humanitarian Law, why it is necessary, how it come into formation and what are the type of armed conflicts where the International Humanitarian Law applies. So, stay tuned and let's understand the subject interestingly:

Father of International Humanitarian Law: Hennery Dunant
If we start with defining the International Humanitarian Law then it could be defined as The set of rules which are applicable on the grounds of Armed Conflict and also focus on how to limit the atrocities of such conflicts.

International Humanitarian Law is commonly addressed as IHL and is derived from the word Jus In Bello.

Therefore, whenever there is any war between two or more nations there are two groups which are involved from each side of the conflicting parties, one who is directly engaged in the war like the military personnel and the second type of people because of which the IHL came into formation i.e., the people who are not directly engaged in the warlike, medical personals whose only job is to aid the wounded people, nurses, cooks, sweepers or the mere civilians.

So we could say that IHL looks after the people who are only there to assist the war and make sure that any harm is not caused to the civilians.

Illustration: Let's say that there is a war that has engaged between India and China in the North-east region of India and there lies a village in between the war zone. Now as per the rules of IHL the people of such a village are not at all engaged in the armed conflict and have nothing to do with such conflict in general. Therefore, by applying such rules and to limit the atrocities of the war, such members of the village would be evacuated from such area towards a safe zone.

Illustration: In recent times a war started between Russia and Ukraine that led to the involvement of arms and weapons in the civil zone where people lived and students were studying medicine from various countries. Looking that both countries paused the war in such areas and provided a proper passage through which the civilians and students could be safely evacuated.

This is all because of the IHL only that during the time of such destructive conflict a Humanitarian approach is still kept into consideration.
  • Aim of International Humanitarian Law:
    As we know the International Humanitarian Law is also known as Jus in Bello, the Law of Armed conflict, or the Law of War but the reason why it was created was that it creates a balance between the Humanitarian Principles and also puts efforts in minimizing the atrocities and suffering.

The following are the two important aims of IHL:
  1. To provide protection and assistance to the people who have suffered or affected by the armed conflict.
  2. To regulate the way wars are committed.

Principles of IHL:
There are around eight important principles of IHL, which are as follows:
  1. To bring balance between humanity and military activities.
  2. It is not concerned with the legitimacy of war.
  3. Principle of Distinction.
  4. Principle of Military Necessity.
  5. Principle of Proportionality.
  6. Principle of Humanity.
  7. Principle of Non-Discrimination.
  8. Special care for women and children.
Now let's try to understand these all with some context:
  • To bring balance between humanity and military activities, so that a country could grow and develop, aside from the atrocities of the war. [In the growth of a country there is a role of different factors like education, sports, and cultural development play a major role in the development of a country and if any of such factors are missing, that could result in causing damage to such a society. A recent example of such could be Afghanistan after the invasion of the Taliban.]
  • It is a legal term in itself 'Jus ad bellum' which says that IHL is not concerned about the legitimacy of the conflict. As it is the work of the United Nations or the related organizations. As discussed in the first point itself humanitarian law is only concerned with bringing balance between Humanity and military activities.
  • As per the Principle of Distinction, there has to be a distinction between the civilians and the combatants. This ultimately means the protection of non-combatants like medical personnel, wounded, sick, prisoners of war, surrendered etc. Eg: If the USA had made this distinction in World War II and had not dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The Principle of Military Necessities says, that IHL strictly prohibits the destruction of necessities like food, water, medical equipment etc of the hostile military. E.g.: Cannot pollute or bomb a place where food is kept or mix poison in the pond from which such hostile military drinks water.
  • As per the Principle of Proportionality, only that much amount of military force can be used which is necessary to defeat the enemy. Furthermore, the attack must not cause loss of civilians' life and property. E.g.: to kill a terrorist group of 4-5 members who are hidden and have got mixed with the people of the village, due to which it has become difficult to distinguish them from terrorists. In such a case, a force which will destroy the whole village cannot be used.
  • Principle of Humanity says, to prohibit violence to life and person (including cruel treatment and torture) the taking of hostages, Humiliating and degrading treatment and execution without regular trial. As per this principle, only civilians should be entitled to be respected for their physical and mental integrity, honor, family rights, religious convictions and practices.
  • According to the Principles of Non-Discrimination, any distinction based on race, sex, nationality, belief or political opinion is prohibited.
  • Women and children are granted preferential treatment, respected and protection should be provided in the war field and its nearby localities.

Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907:
  1. Hague Convention of 1899
    The Hague Convention of 1899 gave 3 main treaties and 3 additional declarations:
    • Convention for Pacific Settlement of International Disputes: This convention includes the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
    • Convention concerning the Laws and customs of war on land: this convention said that as per the laws and customs of war, there should be proper treatment of prisoners of war, treatment of wounded, forbids the use of poison, killing of enemy combatants who have surrendered, looting of town and places, attacking and bombardment of town and places.
    • Convention for the Adoption of Maritime Warfare: This convention provided for the protection of marked Hospitals and Ships with unarmed soldiers and assistants.
    • Declaration concerning the prohibition of the Discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons or through any other method.
    • Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the use of projectiles with the sole object of spreading Asphyxiating Poisonous gases. (Like what the US did to Japan in WW II)
    • Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the use of Bullets which can easily expand or change their forms inside the human body. E.g.: Dum-Dum Bullets.

  2. Hague Convention of 1907
    The Hague Convention of 1907 only provided some advancements from the 1899 convention

    This convention of 1907 consists of 13 treaties and 1 declaration, some of which are:
    • Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes
    • Convention respecting the limitation of the employment of force for Recovery of Contract debts
    • Convention relating to the opening of hostilities
    • Convention respecting the laws and customs of war on land
    • Convention relating to Rights and duties of Neutral Powers of the person in case of war or land
    • Convention relating to the legal position of enemy merchant ships at the start of hostilities
    • Convention relating to the merchant's ships into warships
    • Convention for the Adoption of warfare
    • Convention concerning Rights and duties of Neutral Powers in Naval war
    • Declaration Prohibiting the discharge of Projectiles and explosives from balloons

Geneva Conventions:
There are up to now, 4 Geneva Conventions that have taken place. The first Geneva convention started with the moment when Henry Dunant, witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859 where he saw the need for an international set of laws governing the treatment and care for wounded and sick in the war.

He saw that a war was fought between French and Austrian armies in Northern Italy, where nearly 40K were wounded and suffering in the field because of a lack of facilities, personnel and truce to give them medical aid/assistance.

So upon return to Geneva, Dunant published a book namely, - 'Memory of Solferino' in which he mentioned everything he saw on the battlefield.

Later he also founded ICRC.
First Geneva Convention Of 1864:
"For The Amelioration Of The Condition Of The Wounded And Sick In Armies In The Field"
  1. Originally 12 nations participated in the first convention.
  2. This lengthy treaty protected soldiers who were hors de combat i.e., out of the battlefield due to sickness or injury as well as medical and religious personnel.
  3. According to the article in Geneva Conventions

Ambulance and military hospitals shall be recognized as neutral.
  • Wounded and sick soldiers who are out of battle should be humanly treated and should not be killed, injured, tortured or subjected to biological experimentation.
  • Obligation to respect and establish a medical unit.
  • Wounded and sick soldiers should be cared for and protected.
  • Parties who are involved in the war should record the identity of the dead and wounded and transmit this information to the opposite party.
  • Protection should be provided by the parties involved in a war to the International Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations.

After the 1st Treaty was adopted in 1864, it was significantly revised and replaced in 1906, 1929 and 1949.

Second Geneva Convention Of 1906:
"Amelioration Of The Condition Of Wounded, Sick And Shipwrecked Members Of Armed Forces At Sea"

Some essential provisions of this treaty were:
  1. Requires all parties to protect and care for wounded, sick and shipwrecked.
  2. Any party cannot capture a hospital ship's medical staff.
  3. The religious and medical personnel shall not be harmed on a shipwreck.
  4. Hospital ships cannot be used for any military purpose.
This convention also focused on the burial of the dead and the transmission of information.

Third Geneva Convention Fo 1929:
"This Geneva Convention Was Related To Humanitarian Protection For Prisoners Of War"

This convention consisted of 97 Articles:
  • Article 1: It defined who are Prisoners of war (POW) as People who are captured by another party to the war and will be referred to as prisoners of war.
  • Article 2: POWs shall have the right to honor and respect and women shall be treated with all regard, due to their gender.
  • Article 5-6: POWs are required and bound to give information related to, True name, Rank, Date of Birth, Serial Number and shall not be coerced for any more information.
  • Article 7-8: The states informed into the ear have to notify the other party about POWs they have in the shortest period possible.
  • Article 27-34: If any word is allotted to POW, then it should be as per his/her rank and condition of health.
  • Article 76: POW who has died in captivity shall be honorably buried and their graves shall be marked and maintained properly.
  • Article 82-97: Covers the implementation of this convention.

Fourth Geneva Convention Of 1949:
All three Geneva Conventions before 1949 only considered combatants and did not involve civilians. But after eh WW-II the kind of brutality and inhumane acts which were done by countries like Germany brought the whole world to this realization of the protection of civilians in wartime. The civilians who would not be considered combatants at any cost would be:
  • Sick People
  • Old age
  • Children
  • Pregnant lady
All the parties involved in the war shall decide a safe place where civilians could be kept and the military shall not attack such a place.

The 4th Geneva Convention focused on 2 main important articles:
  • Article 9 - Red Cross (+) has the right to assist wounded people
  • Articles 12-16 - Non-combatants i.e., somehow civilians must not be murdered, tortured and biologically experimented

The Fourth Geneva Convention also provided certain rights to Prisoners of war:
  1. They must not be tortured or mistreated
  2. Any country can ask only the required information from a POW which are its Name, Rank, Serial no., and Date of Birth.
  3. Prisoners of war should not be put in inhumane conditions.
  4. POWs are allowed to send and receive letters from the family.
  5. Red Cross and any other International Humanitarian organization can visit to check whether the living conditions of prisoners of war are fine or not.

International Humanitarian law, is in itself a very essential law. Even after not being codified it safeguards civilians as well as the people who are participants in the war. It sets the rules and framework, which parties who are involved in the war have to obey which ultimately leads to the safeguard of humanity and the innocent. IHL through its formation also attracted the building up of organizations like the Red Cross and Conventions like Geneva, which expressly work on the prevention of any atrocity.

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