As I prepare for this week’s Irish Red Cross IHL Conference ‘Reporters Lives on the Line’ I thought I’d address some of the most common question I comes across in my role as International Humanitarian Law Dissemination Officer with the Irish Red Cross…
What is International Humanitarian Law aka IHL?
Essentially, IHL demands that even wars have limits by regulating behaviour during wars and armed conflict. The basic aims of IHL are to limit the effects of violence and spare the lives of people not taking part in the conflict. A common misconception is that IHL is about promoting peace however this is not technically true.
International law as it relates to the use of force clearly makes the waging of war illegal except in very exceptional circumstances as laid out in Chapter VII of the UN Charter. However, IHL sits separate from this area of international law and is not informed by it. Instead it is approaches armed conflict from a highly pragmatic viewpoint i.e. that wars are unpleasant, and sadly result in death, destruction and injury that IHL attempts to keep to a minimum. Bearing this in mind, IHL applies to all belligerents in an armed conflict and should be respected by all. It does not care who started the war. It simply wouldn’t work if it took any other stance as generally speaking people on both sides of a conflict tend to be convinced that they are right, their war is just and it is the other side that are wrong.
Where does IHL come from?
While modern IHL didn’t really begin to be codified in a form that we would recognise until the late 1800s those rules emerged from customary law and norms. The concept of regulating behaviour during war is as old as war itself and can be found in some shape or form in every ancient civilisation and culture around the globe. In ancient texts such as the Iliad from 8th century BC Greece the treatment of Hectors body after he is killed by Achilles, where he is dragged around the city horrifies the people suggesting that some moral code of battle and care for the dead has been broken.
In 4th Century BC China Sun Tzu laid out many rules on war including “treat all captives well”; 3rd Century BC India, the leader Asoka was so overcome with remorse for how he had behaved when conquering a particular region that he created a set of rules that he would live by from that day forward and had them inscribed on Pillars for all to see. Some of these Asoka pillars can still be seen in northern India today.
The ancient Roman’s also had rules about not killing the women and children of the enemy. In many African traditions it was against the law to poison the well of the enemy. Here in Ireland we had the Cáin Adomnáin which laid out the ‘Law of Innocents’ and was agreed in Birr in 697AD. It stated that it was illegal during war to kill women, children or priests and anyone doing so would have to pay a penalty. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions also all laid out rules governing warfare. This is of considerable significance because not only is IHL universal in that the Geneva Conventions enjoy universal ratification but the rules themselves are universal in nature, having developed through time in every culture that engaged in war.
From Louise Sarsfield Collins, International Humanitarian Law Dissemination Officer with the Irish Red Cross