FOUNDATION: Unit IV. International Humanitarian Law 3 of 5

International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Laws

US Soldiers wounded in SW Pacific, 1943

International humanitarian law and human rights law have different histories. International humanitarian law evolved from the customs and practices of armed conflict. International human rights law has a more recent history that begins with the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations.

Human rights law is generally designed for situations of peace, but some of the core norms pertain equally to peace and armed conflict, such as the Torture Convention. While some human rights norms can be suspended in times of national emergency that threaten the life of the nation, other norms, like prohibiting torture, remain in legal force all the time, whether in peace or war. In principle, human rights law has a broad scope, whereas international humanitarian law applies only in situations of war, either civil or international.

There are two main strands of international law of armed conflict:

There are important overlaps between the two. For example, both deal with prisoners of war. The principle difference is that the Hague tradition of law pertains to means and methods of combat, while the Geneva or Red Cross tradition pertains to victims of war, thus focusing on persons rather than ways of fighting.

Click each button to find out more about each type of international humanitarian law.

Should human rights be viewed differently during times of war v. times of peace?

During a time of war, why is it important that there are rules of engagement?

Do you think countries follow rules of war most of the time? How would we know if they did not?

ICRC: International Humanitarian Law
The Law of Armed Conflict: Basic Knowledge (pdf file)
International Humanitarian Law – Comparison between Geneva and Hague Law (pdf file)