Human rights are inherent in human beings, they are a must for a person to
live a dignified life. International humanitarian law plays a prominent role in
ensuring rule of law during armed conflict. IHL emphasizes the protection of the
human rights of civilians, prisoners, and wounded soldiers.
Human RightsAccording to the United Nations:
human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex,
nationality, ethnicity, language, religion or any other status. Human rights
include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom
of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.
Everyone is entitled to these rights without discrimination.
Human rights are also referred to as Fundamental Rights or basic rights or
natural rights. They are known as fundamental rights because, without them, a
human being cannot live a dignified life. Human rights are being guaranteed by
the State to the people with some exceptions. Even at the international level,
treaties and conventions are signed to lay an obligation on governments to
promote human rights in their jurisdiction.
Human rights ensure that we get equal opportunity and utilize our potential to
fully develop ourselves without hindrance. Human rights are universal in nature
i.e. we may be living in any part of the world and having different
socio-economic conditions, we all have similar human rights.
UN and Human Rights
The United Nations is the most important international organization. It has to
fulfill multiple objectives, one among it is to ensure human rights to all human
beings. Ensuring human rights is one of its core functions. In the context of
human rights, it has taken many initiatives such as establishing a specific body
and signing treaties and conventions.
Initiatives taken by the UN to uphold human rights are as follows:
UN Charter and Human Rights
The UN Charter is the foundation stone of the UN. The UN Charter contains
several provisions which aims to promote, protect, and extend human rights. It
acts as a basic source of inspiration for the organs of the UN to ensure
implementation of the rule of law throughout the world.
The Preamble of the UN Charter mentions that the people of the UN are determined
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the
human in the equal rights of men and women of large and small nations. The Ist
Article of the UN Charter says that it is the purpose of the UN to achieve
international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic,
social, cultural or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging
respect for human rights and fundamental freedom for all without distinction as
to race, sex, language or religion.
Apart from these two important parts, the UN Charter gives responsibility to the
General Assembly, for the promotion of human rights through international
cooperation and the Economic and Social Council to make recommendation for the
purpose of promoting respect for and the observance of human rights and
fundamental freedom for all. Article 55 of the UN Charter charges the UN to
promote universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental
freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
It is originally known as the 'Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination
and Protection of Minorities' was established in 1947 as a subsidiary of the
former commission on human rights. Later in the year 1999, it was renamed as the
'Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights'. Subsequently,
with the creation of the Human Rights Council, it was replaced by the Advisory
Committee. Its major task is to assist the 'Human Rights Council
Commission on the Status of Women
To protect and promote human rights of women, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
established a commission on the status of women on 21st June 1946. It is an
inter-governmental body aimed at the promotion of gender equality and the
empowerment of women. In this commission, apart from States, NGOs can also
participate. The commission consisted of 45 members State elected on the basis
of equitable geographical distribution.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution 217 in its third
session on 10th December 1948 in France. This resolution is renowned as the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This declaration consists of 30
Articles, set as an objective in front of member States. Although they are not
legally binding on member States. This declaration fulfilled the dream of
formulating the International Bill of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration
promises all the economic, social, political, cultural, and civic rights that
underpin a life free from want and means. Most of the countries have ratified
Articles of UDHR
Article 1-2 Dignity, liberty, and equality.
Article 3-5 Individual rights (such as the right to life etc.)
Article 6-11 Fundamental legality of human rights.
Article 12-17 Right of the individual towards the community.
Article 18-21 Constitutional liberties.
Article 22-27 Individuals' economic, social, and cultural rights.
Article 28-30 Contain general ways of using the above-mentioned rights.
United Nations Human Rights Council
United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is a significant body, created by
the United Nations General Assembly on 15th March 2006 by resolution A/RES/60/251
to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights.
It consists of 47 United Nations member states which are elected by the UN
General Assembly. They have a term of years and shall not be eligible for
immediate re-election after 2 consecutive terms and are elected on a regional
It is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, responsible
for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe
and for addressing the situation of human rights violations and make a
recommendation on them. It generally meets at the UN Office at Geneva, to
discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require attention
throughout the year.
UN Commission on Human Rights
The UN Commission on Human Right (UNCHR) was established by the Economic and
Social Council (ECOSOC) in the year 1946 to weave the international legal fabric
that protects our fundamental rights and freedom. It was composed of 53 members.
However, it was replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006.
Over the years, it had been principal international forum concerned with the
promotion and protection of human rights.
Geographical Basis of Membership
African States (13)
Asian-Pacific States (13)
Eastern European States (6)
Latin American and Caribbean States (8)
Western European and other States (7)
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was
established by the UN General Assembly on 20th December, 1993. It is one of the
leading UN entities with a unique mandate to promote and protect all human
rights for all people.
The OHCHR also plays a significant role in safeguarding the integrity of the
three inter, connected pillars of the United Nations i.e. peace and security,
human rights and development. This office came into existence in the wake of
1993 World Conference on Human Rights. The guiding principle for OHCHR is Universal Declaration of Human Rights
High Commissioner for Human Rights is the head of the OHCHR, who has an onus of
coordinating human rights related activities such as policy making,
implementation etc, throughout the UN system. He also acts as the Secretariat of
the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
Objectives of OHCHR
- Driving the international cooperation on human rights
- Extend support to human rights bodies and treaty monitoring bodies.
- Promoting universal enjoyment of all human rights.
- Helping the UN in universal ratification and implementation of
- Helping member states of the UN to establish National Human Rights
- It also provides education and technical assistance in the field of
- To take suo-moto cognizance of violation of human tights.
The International Covenant on Human Rights
The General Assembly adopted different international covenants on human rights
with a mandate to implement the objective of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. These covenants are as follows:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
It was enacted in the year 1966 and came into force on 23rd March, 1976. It
consists of 53 Articles and 6 Parts. This covenant focused mainly on civil and
political rights. The articles can be grouped under following categories:
General (Articles 1 to 3 and 5)
Rights in Emergency (Article 4)
Substantive Rights (Articles 6 to 27)
Implementation of Rights by Agency (Articles 28 to 45)
Interpretation (Articles 46 to 47)
Signature and Amendments (Articles 48 to 53)
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
This was another important covenant, which emphasized on economic, social and
cultural rights. It was smaller in size than above mentioned covenant but
equally important to it. It was also adopted in 1966. It comprises of 5 Parts
and 31 Articles, which can be grouped as following:
General (Articles 1 to 5)
Substantive Rights (Articles 6 to 15)
Measures for Enforcement (Articles 16 to 25)
Miscellaneous Provisions (Articles 26 to 31)
Both the above listed covenants extended the scope and implementation of human
rights in the world.
Beside these covenants, two optional protocols to these
conventions were also adopted, which are as follows:
First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political
This optional protocol was a crucial step in the promotion and protection of
human rights. The State which became party to optional protocol, accepted that,
individuals claiming to be the victim of violation of any of the rights set
forth in the covenant, can communicate to the Human Rights Committee, set up
according to Part IV of the covenant. States also agreed to adopt Articles 1 to
14. This protocol was enforced from 23rd March, 1976.
Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Another optional protocol was adapted in 1989 by the General Assembly, to the
international covenant on civil and political rights. The basic aim of this
protocol was to abolish death penalties.
Human Rights Committee
Human Rights Committee (HRC) is an important instrument for implementing the
International Bill of Human Rights. This committee was established under the
'Civil Covenant of the General Assembly'. It consists of 18 members. The term of
members shall be for 4 years and they are eligible for re-nomination. Two
members can't be elected from the same country and members are elected on the
basis of geographical equality. There are three ways of implementing provisions
of covenant by the committee, i.e. the System of Reporting, Inter-state
Communication and Conciliation Procedure.
World Conferences on Human RightsImportant world conferences on human rights are as follows:
International Conference on Human Rights or Tehran Conference (1968)
This was the world's first global conference on human rights, held at Tehran in
1968. It was organized on the occasion of 20th anniversary of the adoption of
'Universal Declaration of Human Rights'. It was actually convened to assess
progress of implementation of UDHR. The conference was attended by 84 States, 4
regional organizations, and 57 non-governmental organizations. Its basic
objective was to raise human rights awareness on a global level. Proclamation of
Tehran and 26 resolutions were adopted in the conference. The proclamation
stressed the States to fulfill their obligation of promotion and encouragement
of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without any distinction as to
race, colour, and sex, language, and religion, political or other opinion.
World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 1993 (Vienna Conference)
After Tehran Conference, next world conference on human rights was held in
Vienna in 1993. This conference was very important in the field of human rights
at the international level. Like Tehran Conference, this conference also
assessed implementation of Universal Declaration on Human Rights. At the end of
conference, two part Vienna Declaration and a six part 150 paragraph programme
action were adopted. Another important thing in the conference was to recommend
for the creation of an International Criminal Court to punish those responsible
for the grave violation of human rights. Ethnic cleansing was condemned by
attending members unanimously. In this regard, conference adopted two
declarations of Bosnia and Herzegovina and one for Angola.
Salient features of Vienna Declaration are as follows:
- This declaration upheld that all the human rights are universal and
- The concept of self-determination was reaffirmed by the declaration. It
provided that people have rights t, self-determines, however it does not
mean to give impetus to cession.
- The declaration asked to consolidate international measures to guarantee
and monitor the implementation of human rights under foreign rule.
- The declaration promoted that development, democracy and respect for
human rights are interdependent.
- The declaration emphasized on the gender-based violence and all other
forms of sexual exploitation. It stressed on fighting it through legal
measures at national and international level.
- The declaration gave attention towards the problem faced by the minority
section because of their culture, tradition, religion etc. It prohibits the
- The declaration also proposed the establishment of a post of High
Commissioner for Human Rights.
Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing (1995)
It was fourth in the series of UN sponsored global conference on women, this
conference was important from the viewpoint of human rights for women. The theme
of conference was Equality, Development and Peace. This conference promoted
empowerment of women so that they can enjoy their rights without any obstacle.
International Humanitarian Law
Time immemorial, human beings have always been engaged in conflict, whose
intensity varied according to the situation. It was common in conflict to kill
innocent people, use cruel and uncivilized tactics, bombing and burning civilian
areas etc. In order to stop these inhuman behaviour in armed conflict, concept
of humanitarian law came into existence. It has a long history of evolution. It
is considered as a branch of international law (law of nations). With the
understanding of human rights it became prominent a global level.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross, International
Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seeks to limit the effect of armed
conflict. It protects people who are not or no longer participating in
hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. According
to European Commission IHL is a set of rules that seeks to limit the effects of
armed conflict. It layout the responsibilities of States and non-State armed
group during an armed conflict. This set of rules defines, among others, the
rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief in armed conflict, the
freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel, the protection of
civilians, and the protection of refugees, prisoner, the wounded and sick.
Principles of IHL
There are different principles which act as a foundation stone of IHL. These are
Distinction between Civilian and Combatant
This is the most basic principle of the IHL. The belligerent should recognize
difference between civilian and combatant. They should refrain from attacking
civilian areas, if did, then it will be grave violation of IHL. According to the
UN General Assembly Resolution 2444 (XXIII of 1968), it is prohibited to launch
attacks against the civilian population and that distinction must be made at all
times person taking part in the hostilities and member of civilian population to
effect that the latter be spared as much as possible.
The Principle of Humanity
In layman language, humanity simply means ability of human to love and have
compassion toward others. This principle is the base of any civilization. All
the religions and cultures around the world propagate this idea. Therefore,
during armed conflict, State and non-State actors need to keep this principle in
mind while taking any action. This principle laid the foundation of IHL.
The Principle of Proportionality
This principle is mainly applied in the field of war. The term 'proportionality'
has been used in the Article 22 of Regulation to the Hague Convention, which
means the right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring enemy is not
. According to this principle, for the sake of expected military
advantage, the life of civilians should not be put at risk.
The Prohibition of Attack against Wounded, Sick and Prisoners of War
This is based on the concept of humanity. It is not bravery to attack sick,
wounded and prisoners of war. They all should be treated in human manner. As per
this principle, they no longer possess any threat of for other side. There are
different provisions regarding treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, how to
deal with prisoners of war etc. in IHL.
Avoiding Infliction of Unnecessary Suffering
To satisfy their ego, belligerent nations inflict unnecessary suffering to the
civilians as well as combatant. During 19th and 20th century, level of cruelty
rose remarkably high. Thus, through convention and protocol at international
level, countries accepted the principle, that they will prohibit inflicting
unnecessary suffering. Use of blinding laser weapons was prohibited on the basis
of this principle only.
Conventions and Protocols
The conventions contain the rules and regulations regarding protection of human
rights during armed conflict. There are two main conventions and protocols
related with international humanitarian law, which are discussed below:
Declaration of Paris (1856)
This is also referred as Paris Declaration. This declaration is considered as a
first step towards the creation of IHL. The Declaration of Paris was signed on
16th April, 1856. In this declaration, rules were formulated with the respect of
maritime law. Its primary goal was to abolish privateering, whereby a
belligerent party gave formal permission for armed privately owned ship to seize
enemy vessel. This declaration was agreed by the 55 nations.
Hague Convention of 1899 and 1907
This convention was organised after the First Geneva Convention, which played a
significant role in the arena of IHL. This convention was held in 1899 and 1907
to discuss and deliberate on for enaction on laws of war and war crimes at
international level. Its objective was to reduce occurrence of horrific
incidents in the war field.
The Geneva Convention
is the most important convention to enact International
Humanitarian Law. It is not a single convention but consists of a series of
conventions and protocols. The agreement originated in 1864 and was
significantly updated in 1949. It began with the discussion on humane treatment
of wounded or captured military person and later on covered different aspects.
The inspiration behind Geneva Convention was book of Henry Dunant's 'A Memory of
Solferino', in which he talked about solution to inhuman behaviour in the armed
conflict. He asked all nations to come together to create international law for
the protection of volunteer relief group, wounded soldiers etc.
Geneva Convention of 1864
It was first Geneva Convention, which laid down the principle for emancipating
the condition of wounded labour in armies in the field. In this meeting, treaty
was signed by 12 nations. The remarkable thing of this convention was, linking
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with International
Humanitarian Law. ICRC is the principal organization for implementing its
Geneva Convention of 1906
It was second in the series, was more detailed in comparison to first. It was
attended by 35 States and comprised of 33 Articles. Many new provisions were
added into it, such as repatriation of captured belligerents become
recommendatory instead of mandatory, the burial of dead and the transmission of
Geneva Convention of 1929
The world leaders noticed ineffectiveness of the Geneva Convention and the Hague
Convention during First World War. Therefore, third Geneva Convention was held
in 1929 to enact new humanitarian law. Its official name is the Convention
Related to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. It consisted of 97 Articles. This
convention laid emphasis on treating all prisoners with compassion and allows
them to live in humane conditions. All parties accepted the principle that
'International Red Cross Society' will act as a neutral organization between
nations, will be responsible for collecting and exchanging data about prisoners
of war and the wounded or killed.
Geneva Convention of 1949
This is the fourth and a holistic convention with regard to humanitarian law.
During Second World War, Germany carried out horrific acts on and off the
battlefield even after being the party to convention of 1929. Such incidents led
to the adoption of Geneva Convention of 1949.
Its main provisions were as follows:
- Add provisions for the protection of medical personnel, facilities and
equipment, civilians who take up arms to fight invading forces.
- One of the article stipulated that wounded and sick soldiers should not
be murdered, tortured, exterminated or exposed to biological experiments.
- Hospital ships cannot be used for any military purpose nor captured nor
- Prisoners of War must receive suitable accommodation and adequate amount
- The Red Cross was given right to visit them and examine their living
Geneva Convention Protocol
In the year 1977, two additional protocols were added by Geneva Convention of
1949 to consolidate International Humanitarian Law.
Protocol I added many new provisions for the protection of civilians, wounded
soldiers, voluntee, workers etc. It prohibited the use of weapons which caused
superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering. Also, widespread, long-term and
severe damage to the natural environment was prohibited.
Protocol II was also significant, it added that all people not taking up arms be
treated humanely and no one should order armed forces with a command of 'no
Protocol III also added specific provisions for children. It prohibited certain
acts such as using children as hostage, for slavery, humiliating or degrading
In 2005, one more protocol was added to the Geneva Convention. In this protocol,
distinctive emblem was adopted i.e. red crystal in addition to the Red Cross,
the red cresent and the red shield of David. If any people show this sign, then
all parties are obliged to help and protect that person.
At present, around 190 States are following Geneva Convention. It has led to the
establishment of rule of justice in the arena of armed conflict.
Implementation of IHL
After enaction of IHL, implementation is next major task. Implementation means
that provisions of IHL are being respected and implemented on ground. It covers
both war time as well as peace time. According to international law, each nation
is sovereign, so IHL cannot be directly implemented by the international
Therefore, State party to convention and protocol plays a crucial role in
successful implementation of IHL. Beside these, there are many non-State
entities which play significant role in the implementation of IHL.
Article 1 is common to all the four Geneva conventions, which requires States to
respect and ensure respect for conventions in all circumstances. Thus, it can be
concluded that implementation of IHL is mostly voluntary in nature and there is
no compulsory means for ensuring enforcement of IHL.
Basic Measures for Implementing IHL
Role of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
- The first thing required is to disseminate information about IHL to Member
State, NGOs etc, such as what are its objectives, its importance, ways etc.
- IHL treaties like Geneva Convention should be translated into national
languages, which will be easy for them to understand it.
- Promoting member States to adopt, ratify and enact legislation based on
the principles of IHL. It will ensure smooth compliance of IHL provision.
- Armed personnel should be trained in such a way that they get knowledge
about IHL. It is necessary because lot of IHL provisions is related to battle field.
- International organisations should set up examples in front of world by
punishing those who violate IHL.
- All the parties to the Geneva Convention and Protocol should ensure
respect for the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblem.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a principal organisation in
the arena of implementing IHL. A businessman Henry Dunant had played
instrumental role in the establishment of this organisation. He wanted to
improve care for wounded soldiers in war time. In the year 1863, this
organisation came into existence. Its head quarter is in Geneva, Switzerland.
The ICRC is part of the International Red Cross Movement along with the
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. The State
party to Geneva Convention and its additional protocol of 1977 and 2005 have
accepted the role of ICRC to protect the wounded soldiers, prisoners, civilians
caught in the war etc.
Role of ICRC in implementing IHL is as follows:
- The ICRC has special privilege to act in the event of armed conflict.
- Its most important role is to visit prisoners of war and civilian
internees to make sure that their treatment and the condition in which they
are being held are in consonant with IHL.
- It aimed to protect people during armed conflicts and other situations
of violence and make a effort to obtain full respect for IHL.
- It seeks to minimize the danger to which they are exposed, prevent and
put an end to abuses to which they are subjected.
- It plays a crucial role in restoration of family links, helping people
to come out of conflict zone.
- The ICRC provides assistance services such as, ensuring food or medicine,
capacity building, training of primary health care personnel, surgeons and
- The ICRC may approach State to ask, if detention facilities are not
maintained according to the standard required by the convention and will
cooperate with the State to improve the condition.
- As a neutral organisation, it maintains respository of information on persons
affected by armed conflict, specifically the missing, sick and imprisoned.
Role of International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC)
The Article 90 of the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of 1949
provides for the establishment of an International Humanitarian Fact-Finding
Commission. Following the provisions of Article 90, IHFFC was established in
1991. It consists of 15 independent members and it is a permanent body.
At present, 77 States are party to the IHFFC. The main objective of commission
is to contribute to implementation and ensure respect for IHL. The commission
follows the principle of independence, neutrality, impartiality and
Its main functions are:
- To enquire the facts alleged to be grave violation or serious violation
- The restoration of an attitude of respect for the convention and
additional Protocol 1 through facilitating its good offices.
- Most important function is to report its finding to the States and
making such recommendation as it deems appropriate.
Role of international Criminal Court (ICC)
ICC also plays an important role in implementing provisions of IHL in an
indirect way. It was established through Rome Statute on 17th July, 1998 and
came into force from Ist July, 2002. It is an intergovernmental organisation and
international tribunal, located in the Hague, Netherlands. It investigates and
where warranted tries, individuals charged with the gravest crimes of concern to
the international community, such as genocide, war crimes, etc.
Principle of Accountability Mechanism
Accountability mechanism is also a way of implementing IHL. According to this
mechanism, the State is strictly responsible for all acts committed by members
of its armed forces. The Geneva Convention has prohibited member States from
reprisal against protected persons and goods, as well as civilian population.
States accountability mechanism also covers the payment of compensation to the
Challenges in Implementing International Humanitarian lawIt is quite easy to enact IHL, however, its implementation is confronted with
many challenges, which are as follows;
- There is no nodal organisation to implement IHL at international level. It is
not easy for any organisation to interfere into internal matters of any State.
- International relations are based on the principles of respect and
equality of sovereign nations, thus, it becomes difficult for one nation to
look into matters of violation of IHL.
- In the past few decades, these is a new trend of the rapid development
of private military and securities companies, They are not accountable for
their acts and omission.
- Weapons of mass destruction are still with the nations, these weapons
are biggest challenge to IHL.
- Terrorism, whether by State or non-State actor is a big challenge to IHL.
Additional Protocol 1 unequivocally prohibits acts of terrorism, such as attacks
against civilian or civilian objects.
- Sometimes direct participation of civilians in armed conflict results
into blur distinction between combatant and civilians.
- Tussle of power between Nations also hampers the implementation of IHL.
United State and Russia's ideological differences worsened the situation in