What is International Humanitarian Law?
International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. International humanitarian law is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict. International humanitarian law is part of international law, which is the body of rules governing relations between States.
International humanitarian law does not regulate whether a State may actually use force; this is governed by a distinct part of international law set out in the United Nations Charter.
Source: What is International Humanitarian Law? published by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
International Humanitarian Law: Key Documents and Treaties
The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols prohibit all attacks on civilians and others not taking part in combat, and require that they be protected. The ICRC Geneva Conventions website contains the text of and commentaries on the four Geneva conventions on international humanitarian law and their two additional protocols.
The international humanitarian law Treaty database, compiled by the ICRC, includes 100 treaties and other texts which include law protecting the victims of war and law governing the conduct of hostilities, from 1856 to the present. The full text of the treaties can be downloaded or individual articles viewed. The treaties are browsable by subject and date.
The ICRC has produced a Map of State Parties to the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, current as at December 2013.
Customary IHL is of crucial importance in today’s armed conflicts because it fills gaps left by treaty law.
International Criminal Jurisdiction - Courts & Cases
A system of international jurisdictions tries individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The system consists of the International Criminal Court, plus ad hoc tribunals set up after specific conflicts.
To find decisions of the ICC and ad hoc tribunals, refer to the Courts and Cases tab on the International Criminal Law page of this Guide.
For a concise summary of all War Crimes under the Rome Statute over which the ICC has jurisdiction, and their source in International Humanitarian Law, see the comparative table produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The following free 'debate maps' are provided by Oxford University Press.
Israel-Gaza Wars 2008-2014 - this resource maps scholarly commentary on the international law aspects of the armed conflict(s) between Israel and Gaza since Israel withdrew from the territory. Sources in the map include commentary published in English language law blogs and newspapers and free content from OUP's online services other free repositories.
A later update of this map will include consideration of a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.
The map links to sources such as the Opinio Juris, EJIL: Talk!, Volokh Conspiracy, and Just Security blog posts, the Goldstone Report, the Palmer Report, the Turkel Commission Report, the “Flotilla Report”, UN documents, Human Rights Watch, and selected articles.
Ukraine Use of Force - this resource maps scholarly commentary on the legal arguments regarding the public international law (and some domestic constitutional law) aspects of the use of force in Ukraine, published in legal blogs and newspapers, and free content from OUP's online services.
Use of Force against Syria - this resource maps scholarly commentary on the legal arguments regarding the public international law aspects of the use of force against Syria published in English language legal blogs and newspapers and some very recent journal articles.
Disputes in the South and East China Seas - this resource maps scholarly commentary on the international law aspects of the conflicts in and around South China and East China Seas, including maritime boundary disputes, the question of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, China's recent announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone, and the Philippines/China UNCLOS arbitration. It brings together primary documents with discussions in English-language legal blogs and a selection of journal articles.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
The Language of Peace database (created by the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge and the UN Mediation Support Unit). provides access to about 1000 post-World War II peace agreements. Each agreement is categorised according to the issues it addresses, including negotiation agendas, ceasefire monitoring, power-sharing, human rights and guarantee mechanisms. Researchers can locate relevant provisions based on, for example, the 29 thematic issues, conflict type, region, country and keyword. More about the database. Language of Peace complements and builds on the UN Peace Agreements database, which contains the full-text agreements.
The Rule of Law in Armed Conflict Project (RULAC) (an initiative of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights) comprises two databases:
The old RULAC website, which will remain available, contains a Global Database which aims to report on every concerned State and disputed territory in the world, considering both the legal norms that apply as well as the extent to which they are respected by the relevant actors. You can access the database by individual state or territory. Each state or territory listing provides the following information:
The new RULAC website is an online portal that systematically qualifies situations of armed violence using the definition of armed conflict under international humanitarian law. RULAC also identifies the parties to armed conflicts. The scope of RULAC is currently limited to those conflicts that have emerged since 2011 and are still ongoing. The database:
The Weapons Law Encylopedia (an initiative of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights) is an online compilation of information on the regulation of weapons under public international law. It can be searched or browsed under the following four main headings:
The Afghanistan Documentation Project (ADP) - hosted by the American University Washington College of Law, The Afghanistan Documentation Project (ADP) was established to collect and create a fully searchable and publicly accessible database of documents regarding human rights and humanitarian law violations committed in Afghanistan since 1971. It provides a central repository of publicly accessible and searchable information about atrocities carried out in Afghanistan since 1978.
Oxford Bibliographies Online - International Law provides authoritative encyclopedic entries and annotated bibliographies on a range of topics including crimes against humanity, military necessity, military occupation, genocide and humanitarian intervention.
The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law contains comprehensive and authoritative overviews of all aspects of international law. Entries are arranged alphabetically by topic under broad subjects such as international humanitarian law and the use of force, war, peace and neutrality.
New Books on International Humanitarian Law in the Law Library
The War Report is published annually since 2013 by the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. It provides an overview of contemporary trends in current armed conflicts, including key international humanitarian law (IHL) and policy issues that have arisen and require attention. Aimed at students, academics, experts, journalists and diplomats as well as NGOs and international organizations, The War Report also lists current armed conflicts where IHL applies and focuses on selected situations.
To effectively search hundreds of journals at the same time, see the Journals page in this guide for our recommended databases.
Individual online and print Journals and Yearbooks on international humanitarian law held by the Law Library include:
Longobardo, Marco, 'The Criminalisation of Intra-Party Offences in Light of Some Recent ICC Decisions on Children in Armed Conflict' (2019) 19 International Criminal Law Review 600-634
Roberts, Christopher M, 'From Discretion to Law: Rights-Based Concerns and the Evolution of International Sanctions' (2018) 44(1) Brooklyn Journal of International Law
Grzebyk, Patrycja, 'To Kill or Not to Kill: the Use of Force against Legitimate Targets in Armed Conflicts' (2018) 7(2) Wroclaw Review of Law, Administration & Economics
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