What are some examples of international law

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It aims to reduce the suffering caused by wars by valuing the victims and helping them as much as possible.


International humanitarian law relates to times of armed conflict, strives to balance two opposing interests - on the one hand, the consideration of military interests, on the other hand, the preservation of the principle of humanity - and contains provisions both for the protection of persons who do not or no longer participate in hostilities, as well as restrictions on the methods and means of war.

An important purpose of international humanitarian law is to limit the suffering caused by war by protecting and assisting the victims as much as possible. It thus ties in with the international reality of armed conflicts and does not ask about the reasons or the possible right to conduct an armed conflict under international law.

Legal sources

Legal norms for the moderation of warfare and the alleviation of suffering are as old as the war itself. Modern humanitarian law found its origin in the establishment of the Red Cross in 1863 and the adoption of the first Geneva Red Cross Convention of 1864 (Agreement for the Improvement of the lot of the wounded). Since the middle of the 19th century there has been a codification movement that continues to this day, the most important building blocks of which are the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, the four Geneva Conventions passed in 1949 and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions passed in 1977 and 2005. While the Hague Conventions primarily codified rules on warfare (Hague Law), the Geneva Conventions contain, in particular, provisions on the protection of wounded, prisoners of war and civilians in armed conflicts (Geneva Law).

In recent decades, the Environmental War Convention (1977), the UN Arms Convention (1980), the Chemical Weapons Convention (1993), the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines (1997) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (2008) have been added. Another important international humanitarian law agreement is the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict of 1954 and the two protocols to this convention.

Many of the provisions of the above-mentioned agreements, in particular the rules for protecting civilians from the effects of war, are now a customary international law that applies to all states regardless of the contractual obligations. Customary humanitarian law is particularly important for non-international armed conflicts because for these there are so far fewer international treaty regulations. In a comprehensive study in 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) examined which rules in the field of humanitarian international law could claim to be valid under customary international law.

International humanitarian law and human rights

International humanitarian law and international human rights protection complement each other. Both strive to protect the individual, but in different circumstances and in different ways. While international humanitarian law focuses on the situation of armed conflict, international human rights protection aims above all to protect individuals from state attacks in peacetime.

However, a “hard core” of human rights does not lose its validity even in times of armed conflict (so-called “minimum human rights standard”). The international protection of human rights knows no norms on the limitation of the means and methods of warfare, which form an essential part of the provisions of international humanitarian law.

Essential principles

The fundamental aim of all norms of international humanitarian law is to balance two opposing interests: on the one hand, consideration of military concerns, on the other hand, the preservation of the principle of humanity in armed conflicts. This results in a number of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law:

  • Neither the parties to the conflict nor the members of their armed forces have unlimited freedom in choosing the methods and means used to wage war. The use of any weapons or methods of combat that cause unnecessary injuries and unnecessary suffering is prohibited.
  • In order to protect the civilian population and civilian objects, a distinction must be made between civilian populations and combatants at all times. Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked. Attacks may only be aimed at military targets.
  • Fighters and civilians under the control of an opposing party have the right to their lives and their dignity being respected. They are to be protected from any acts of violence or reprisals.
  • It is forbidden to kill or injure an opponent who surrenders or is unable to continue the fight.


The most important institution for safeguarding and promoting international humanitarian law is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC is an organization with partial international legal capacity that has been constituted as an association under Swiss law with its seat in Geneva.

The work of the ICRC in the context of international armed conflicts is based on the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocol I of 1977. This expressly recognizes the right of the ICRC to carry out certain activities, for example aid for wounded, sick or shipwrecked soldiers, visits to Prisoners of war and aid to civilians. Even in civil wars, the ICRC is entitled to offer its services to warring parties on the basis of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The basic requirement for the work of the ICRC is that it is non-partisan and neutral.

The ICRC and the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, form the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Their representatives meet with representatives of the parties to the Geneva Conventions at international Red Cross and Red Crescent Conferences, which usually take place every four years.

In addition, the International Humanitarian Investigation Commission, which was constituted in accordance with Article 90 of the 1st Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, is of particular importance in observing and enforcing international humanitarian law. The International Humanitarian Investigation Commission is a body of 15 independent experts whose task it is to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law in countries that have recognized the Commission's competence (almost half of the countries worldwide).