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Introduction and History of International Humanitarian Law

by Sharmishtha Sharma
Introduction and History of International Humanitarian Law

Introduction to International Humanitarian Law

International Humanitarian Law is a part of public international law which mainly concerns itself with rules and regulations during the armed conflict. The main objective of International Humanitarian Law is to protect people who are not a part of hostilities of war and also with the warfare techniques employed by the state who are at war.

The history of human civilization is replete with wars of all nature, local, regional, national, and international. Same is true of the brutalities committed during these wars. Wars are the blots to humanity and involve brutal and arbitrary violence. Therefore, several attempts have been made at all levels to make some rules of conduct even during warfare. Those attempts have been instrumental in shaping the modern laws of warfare. Law of warfare is given the new nomenclature, “ international humanitarian law” because in our times, wars have been declared illegal under international law. Now-a-days, there are many examples of armed conflicts resorted to by nations which are not in the nature of war.

History of International Humanitarian Law

  • There is no concrete documentary evidence with regard to when and where International Humanitarian Law developed and it is difficult to name the creator of International Humanitarian Law. Nevertheless, the history of International Humanitarian Law revolves around the 19th Century when codification of laws of war began which gave birth to the modern International Humanitarian Law.
  • The Battle of Solferino of 1858 is regarded as the crucial movement in the history of modern International Humanitarian Law which later led to the evolution of First Geneva Convention, 1864.
  • Henry Dunant was influenced by the Battle of Solferino and was horrified by the suffering of injured soldiers and in 1862 published UN Souvenir de Solferino (A memory of Solferino) wherein he proposed that the nation should form relief society to provide medical care for wounded soldiers in wartime. This laid down the foundation for Geneva Conventions which lead to the establishment of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC).
  • On 22nd August 1864, 12 nations cake together and signed the First Geneva Convention agreeing to guarantee medical aid with no discrimination and to adopt a special identifying emblem i.e. the Red Cross on a white background.
Red Cross by ICRC
  • The Geneva Convention reflected ICRC’s own concerns and focused on the needs of war victims but towards the end of the 19th century some countries introduced international rules known as the Hague Conventions governing the way wars were conducted.
  • Towards the end of World War 1, ICRC appealed for an end to use of chemical warfare which led to the adoption of the treaty of 1925. (Protocol for the prohibition of the use in war of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacterial Methods of Warfare).
  • Further, ICRC’s intensive efforts expanded protection to war victims that resulted in new Geneva Conventions that protected Prisoners of War in 1929.

What is International Humanitarian Law?

International Humanitarian Law can be defined as a branch of international law containing a set of rules which seek for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effect of armed conflicts. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. Though it is very difficult to define what international humanitarian law exactly is, this definition has been accepted by many nations and jurists.

The first part of the definition emphasises the close linkage of international humanitarian law with international law. It is not separate from international law. International law includes international humanitarian law.

When does International Humanitarian Law apply?

As we know that International Humanitarian Law applies in situations of armed conflicts or warfare. Does this mean that International humanitarian law indirectly justifies armed conflicts or warfare?

  • No, International Humanitarian Law does not justify war infact it regulates war. It is basically concerned with the protection of victims of any violence, the Charter of UN 1945 clearly prohibits war.
  • The two important terms under International Humanitarian Law cannot be ignored i.e. Jus in Bello meaning the rules of International Humanitarian Law that are there to regulate the war situation by promoting the principle of human treatment and Jus Ad Bellum which means the rules of International Humanitarian Law in relation to prohibition of rules of law against another nation.

The 1945 Charter of the UN not only prohibits war but also prohibits the threat to use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any nation. The UN Charter permits the use of force only in self-defence.

Kinds of Armed Conflict

  1. When one nation attacks another the result is armed aggression.
  2. When conflict arises from armed attack, force is used by the victim nation to defend by using the right to self defence.
  3. When the UN resolves to use force against an aggressor state.
  4. When there occurs armed conflicts inside a nation itself (situation during civil war where domestic laws are applied).

International Humanitarian Law applies during the time of war or armed conflict, for example: Kargil War in 1999, China War in 1962 and Pakistan War in 1971.

Nature and Scope

Nature specifies the content of the rules of Humanitarian Law which are applied with certain objectives. These objectives are to set limits on the means and methods adopted by the parties to an armed conflict.

By reducing and limiting the brutal and arbitrary violence, International Humanitarian Law contributes to the object of general International Law in order to maintain international peace and security between the nations. Therefore, it can be concluded that the nature of International Humanitarian Law is to minimize human sufferings caused by war or armed conflicts.

International Humanitarian law applies in the situation of an armed conflict between armed forces of two or more countries or between the armed forces of a country and an organised resistance movement inside the country but contrary,  human right law is applicable in all circumstances and at all places.

International Humanitarian Law is considered as a special branch of International Law which deals with relations between nations and International organisations and International Humanitarian Law regulates the conduct of members of armed forces of national and international organisations.


Hence, International Humanitarian Law does not have a wider scope in comparison to the scope of International Law. The efforts to regulate warfare have existed to a greater extent throughout the history of International Humanitarian Law but these remained temporary till the time ICRC was adopted, established and founded and the 1st Geneva Convention came into existence.

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