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International Humanitarian Law

International humanitarian law (IHL) - known also as the Law of Armed Conflict or the Law of War - is the body of international rules that in time of armed conflict protects those who do not, or can no longer, participate in hostilities, such as civilians, the wounded and prisoners of war.

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International Humanitarian Law regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its inhumanity.   It also limits the methods and means of warfare that may be employed by parties to an armed conflict, prohibiting attacks on civilian populations and weapons that are indiscriminate or inhumane.  It does not regulate the circumstances in which a state may use force, or determine whether an armed conflict is legal, and its rules apply to all sides, regardless of who started the conflict.  IHL also applies to both states and non-state actors involved in international armed conflict, although a more limited set of rules applies to armed conflict that takes place on the territory of a single state (known as armed conflict of a non-international character).

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols

The core of modern International Humanitarian Law is set out in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols. Every state in the world has adhered to the Geneva Conventions and although not all states are yet parties to the two Additional Protocols of 1977, many of the rules set out in these instruments enjoy the status of customary international law applicable to all states. 

Basic Rules of International Humanitarian Law

  • The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property.  Neither the civilian population as a whole, nor individual civilians, may be attacked. Attacks may only be made against military objectives.  
  • People who do not or can no longer take part in hostilities are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and psychological wellbeing.  They must in all circumstances be protected and treated with humanity, without distinction.   It is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or who can no longer take part in the fighting.
  • Neither the parties to the conflict nor members of their armed forces have an unlimited right to choose methods and means of warfare.  It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.
  • The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party to the conflict which has them in its power. Medical personnel and medical facilities and vehicles may not be attacked.   Personnel wearing the distinctive emblem of the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Crystal on white backgrounds, and facilities and vehicles bearing the emblems, must be respected.

Ireland and IHL

Ireland is firmly committed to the effective application and further development of international humanitarian law.  Ireland played an active role in the negotiation of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, recognising it as an essential means for bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious international crimes, including grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs of law (‘war crimes’).

International Humanitarian Law regulates the conduct of war in order to limit its inhumanity

Ireland was also one of a small core group of states that promoted the development of a new instrument of IHL on cluster munitions, a major international initiative that culminated in the negotiation and adoption by consensus of the Convention on Cluster Munitions at a Diplomatic Conference hosted by the Government of Ireland in Dublin in May 2008.  The Convention was adopted at the Dublin Conference by 107 states and opened for signature on 3 December the same year at a Conference in Oslo. Ireland signed and ratified the Convention on 3 December 2008.  The Convention entered into force on 1 August 2010.

In 2008 the Government established the national committee on international humanitarian law to advise it on matters of IHL, to provide a means of promoting wider knowledge of IHL within the State and to prepare for International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. It meets regularly under the chairmanship of the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade.

Ireland has participated actively in the Initiative of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss Government to develop proposals to enhance the effectiveness of mechanisms to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law. This Initiative was one of the principal outcomes of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2011. Several meetings of States were convened to develop proposals to improve compliance with IHL which were presented at the 32nd International Conference in 2015. A Resolution was adopted mandating the continuation of the process. Ireland has participated actively in these meetings.

On 18 July 2016 the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (Hague Convention) Bill 2016, having been approved by the Government, was presented in the Seanad. Enactment of the Bill will enable the State to accede to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict and its 1999 Protocol. The Bill will create offences prohibiting the destruction, damage or theft of cultural property in specified circumstances during the course of an armed conflict, in accordance with the 1999 Protocol, and provide for appropriate penalties upon conviction and related matters.

Read more about Ireland and IHL

1. Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the 60th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions
2. Statement by the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva at the 31st Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent 2011
3. International Humanitarian Law - Compliance Mechanisms - Remarks by Ambassador Corr
4. Statement by Ireland at Second Meeting of States on Strengthening Compliance with IHL
5. Statement by Ireland at the Third meeting of States on Strengthening Compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL)
6. Statement by Ireland at the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools 2015
7. European Union Guidelines on promoting compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL)
8. Statement by the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations Office at Geneva at the ‌32nd Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent