TRIGGER WARNING: MENTIONS OF VIOLENCE
WHY IS INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW IMPORTANT?
War, by definition, is incompatible with peace. In modern society, we are constantly bombarded with news about war, forms of armed conflict, shootings, and other crimes against humanity. The natural consequence of the constant flow of violent information is the desensitization of the viewers and the dehumanization of victims and survivors. As a student of Political Science, I’ve spent countless hours researching conflicts and other events that have amassed a profound amount of human suffering.
However, the sheer magnitude of harm that comes to victims during the war is mainly absent in discourse. Battles are described based on parties, like countries or political groups involved, the weapons used, and always written in the perspective of the victor. The death and injury count is reserved to one line– “x amount of civilians were killed, and y were injured.” Once a life, now a statistic. The term “casualties” is used to describe how many people died in a given event. However, there is nothing inherently “casual” about someone dying, mainly innocent civilians that have no stake in the conflicts around them.
WHAT IS INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW?
International Humanitarian Law is essential as it provides rules for the conduct of war, intending to minimize humanitarian costs. As defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross, “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.” It is a part of international law, which are “the legal responsibilities of States in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within State boundaries. International law’s domain encompasses a wide range of issues of international concern, such as human rights, disarmament, international crime, refugees, migration, problems of nationality, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force, and the conduct of war, among others,” according to the United Nations.
Despite the fact that the various forms of international law are agreements among states, they are not legally binding the same way domestic laws are to its residents. For this reasoning, those who may violate International Humanitarian Law may not be prosecuted. International Humanitarian Law seeks to protect human rights, which is why it is often described as human rights law in a humanitarian context.
The genesis of International Humanitarian Law occurred because of the countless preventable deaths Henry Dunant saw during the Battle of Solferino. In turn, he proposed establishing an organization to help those injured in battle and an international agreement that would uphold the protection of those harmed during battle. These proposals led to the creation of the Red Cross and the First Geneva conventions, respectively.
WHAT ARE IMPORTANT AGREEMENTS IN THE LAW?
The Geneva Conventions are at the core of International Humanitarian Law, and there are four different Geneva Conventions. The First Geneva Conventions were created to protect “wounded and sick soldiers on land during the war.” The Second Geneva Convention would go on to include the sick and wounded at sea during times of war. The Third Geneva Convention deals with Prisoners of War, ensuring that they were not exploited and that their human rights were upheld. Lastly, the Fourth Geneva Conventions expanded to include the protection of civilians and not only combatants of war.
International Humanitarian Law emphasizes the protection of civilians and combatants and the maintenance of human rights and dignity during the conflict. Humanity is only as strong as those who work to protect it.