IRRC No. 269

Fighting by the rules: Instructing the armed forces in humanitarian law

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It is commonly accepted that education in human rights may be one of the most effective tools in promoting the observance of those rights. Those whose profession entails the exercise of power over others have an obvious need to know the limits of their power and members of the armed forces represent just such a group. Their acts engage the responsibility of their State under human rights treaties, wherever those acts are committed. Some instruction in human rights law, particularly non-derogable rights, is therefore necessary but the body of rules which imposes the greatest prohibitions and restraints on the conduct of armed forces is humanitarian law. That term is used here as including both “The Hague law”, which imposes limits on the means and methods of warfare, and “Geneva law”, which seeks to protect certain victims of the conflict, such as the wounded and sick in the field, the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea, prisoners of war and civilians living under belligerent occupation. The latter body of rules was updated in 1977 by the addition of two Protocols which extended the range of protection by incorporating elements of “The Hague law”. The 1949 Geneva Conventions have been ratified by 166 States and Hague Convention IV, with which we shall principally be dealing, was held by the Nuremberg Tribunal to represent customary international law. To all intents and purposes then, every State is bound by the two bodies of rules. In addition, the 1977 Protocols are binding on those States which have ratified them.

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