IRRC No. 903

International humanitarian law’s old questions and new perspectives: On what law has got to do with armed conflict

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The question of whether international humanitarian law (IHL) has an impact on how armed conflicts are conducted is a controversial one. Sceptics claim that the law is virtually irrelevant in determining State behaviour in armed conflict. Proponents point to its importance in mitigating the suffering caused by war. This paper looks at recent scholarship from historians, political scientists, economists and lawyers that challenges traditional narratives held dear by the law's sceptics and proponents alike. It then discusses implications of these approaches for a current understanding of the role of IHL in today's armed conflicts. The new perspectives allow for a broader understanding of IHL's central issues and permit us to ask more pertinent questions when looking at the law with the aim of putting it to use for the protection of civilians.

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