International humanitarian law and protection of civilians in armed conflict

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules and principles that seeks to protect persons not directly participating in hostilities during armed conflicts, as well as to limit the means and methods of warfare. It is also known as the Law of War or the Law of Armed Conflict. Its fundamental objective is to reduce human suffering in times of war and to ensure respect for human dignity, even in situations of extreme violence.

IHL is essentially contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which almost all States are party. These Conventions were supplemented by two other treaties: the 1977 Additional Protocols on the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflict.

This law is important because it provides a legal framework that regulates conduct during armed conflicts, establishing limits to violence and protecting the most vulnerable people in such situations, such as civilians, the wounded, the sick, prisoners of war and humanitarian personnel.

With respect to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, IHL establishes several fundamental rules and principles:

Distinction: A distinction must always be made between combatants and civilians. Civilians should not be directly targeted and should be protected from the effects of hostilities as much as possible.

Proportionality: Attacks directed against legitimate military targets must not cause excessive damage compared to the expected military benefit. Attacks that may result in indiscriminate harm to the civilian population should be avoided.

Precautions: Parties to the conflict should take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Prohibition of indiscriminate attacks: Attacks that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or those that cannot be specifically directed at a legitimate military target, are prohibited.

Prohibition of sexual violence and other violations: IHL prohibits the use of sexual violence, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and other serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Special protection for children and displaced persons: IHL grants special protection to children, displaced persons, women and other particularly vulnerable persons during armed conflict.

Compliance with international humanitarian law is crucial to minimize the devastating impact of armed conflict on the civilian population and to ensure respect for human dignity and human rights, even under the most difficult conditions. However, it is important to emphasize that respect for and effective implementation of IHL depend to a large extent on the behavior of the parties to the conflict and their willingness to comply with these rules and principles.