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International Humanitarian Law During Armed Conflict

The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine has made headlines the world over, and has brought to the fore reflections and deliberations on how international humanitarian law governs armed conflict. The essence of humanitarian law is largely premised on the protection of civilian lives and civilian objects, by placing obligations and restrictions in the way armed combat is executed.


The loss of lives in armed conflict is something which is unfortunate, be it civilian or combatants. Unfortunately, however, sometimes armed conflict may degenerate into an encounter whereby civilians find themselves on the receiving end. Such is especially common in guerilla warfare, where communities are constantly accused by the combating sides, of assisting their opponents. This is the dilemma that civilians face; being forced to help one combating side invites fury from their opponent, not helping the other combating side also invites fury from their opponent.


International treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, solicit guarantees from signatories to primarily, not involve civilians who not actively part of the conflict. It must be pointed out that civilians who actively assist a combating side, may lose this protection.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 regulate armed conflict, whilst the Hague Conventions of 1907 govern the means and methods of warfare.


The Hague Conventions of 1907 cover;


  • the pacific settlement of disputes (based on The Hague Convention I of 1899);
  • the opening of hostilities (The Hague Convention III);
  • the laws and customs of war (Convention IV, with annexes and regulations, which develops Convention II of 1899 and cases of military occupation);
  • the rights and duties of neutral powers in case of war on land (V);
  • the status of merchant ships at the outbreak of hostilities (VI);
  • the conversion of merchant ships into war ships (VII);
  • the laying of automatic submarine contact mines (VIII);
  • the bombardment by naval forces in time of war (IX);
  • the adaptation to maritime war of the principles of the Geneva Convention of 1906 (X);
  • restrictions with regard to the exercise of the right of capture in naval war (XI);
  • the establishment of an international prize court (XII);
  • the rights and duties of neutral powers in naval war (XIII).



Indiscriminate armed attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law, as they pose an increased risk of resulting in a high number of civilian casualties. Indiscriminate attacks are those that are not directed at any particular target that belongs to or houses the opposite combating side.


It goes without saying that direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects (e.g hospitals, houses, businesses, places of worship) are prohibited under international humanitarian law, unless they are being actively used for military objectives. In fact, military attacks are limited to military objectives, whereat personnel and objects make effective efforts towards military action and in the event that these are neutralized, it offers the attacker a certain military advantage.


In conclusion, the basic principle in international humanitarian law is that parties to the conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians, and this forms the main pedestal on which humanitarian law is premised i.e. to protect civilians and non-combatants. At the end of the day, parties involved in armed conflict are encouraged to pursue amicable avenues to resolve disputes in order to avoid loss of lives and destruction of infrastructure.

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