International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the rules of war, applies to armed conflicts. It protects people caught up in armed conflict who aren’t directly involved in it and restricts some of what participants in armed conflicts can do in war. IHL does not regulate whether a State may use force.

IHL basics 

The rules of war are universal. The Geneva Conventions — critical to IHL — have been ratified by all 196 states. Very few international treaties have this level of support.

Everyone fighting a war needs to respect IHL, both governmental forces and non-State armed groups.

The rules of war

  1. Protect those who are not fighting, such as civilians, medical personnel or aid workers. 
  2. Protect those who are no longer able to fight, like an injured soldier or a prisoner. 
  3. Prohibit targeting civilians. Doing so is a war crime.
  4. Recognize the right of civilians to be protected from the dangers of war and receive the help they need. Every care must be taken to avoid harming them or their houses, or destroying their means of survival, such as water sources, crops, livestock. 
  5. Mandate that the sick and wounded have a right to be cared for, regardless of whose side they are on. 
  6. Specify that medical workers, medical vehicles, and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work cannot be attacked. 
  7. Prohibit torture and degrading treatment of prisoners. 
  8. Specify that detainees must receive food and water and be allowed to communicate with their loved ones. 
  9. Limit the weapons and tactics that can be used in war, to avoid unnecessary suffering. 
  10. Explicitly forbid rape or other forms of sexual violence in the context of armed conflict. 

Read our guide for journalists on IHL

What are the rules of war? 

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The role of New Zealand Red Cross in IHL

For IHL to be useful in times of war, it must be understood during times of peace. We promote knowledge and implementation of IHL in New Zealand to limit the impact of war on victims of armed conflict and prevent violations of IHL during armed conflict.

We organise a range of events to raise awareness of IHL.  One of the main events each year is a moot competition for law students around New Zealand. Law students participate in a fictional war crimes trial and learn about IHL.

Read more about the 2023 moot

The New Zealand IHL Committee

The New Zealand IHL Committee supports the government to educate the public about IHL.  The Committee's role is to advise the government on how to meet its international obligations relating to the dissemination of IHL. 

The NZ IHL Committee includes people representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the New Zealand Defence Force, the New Zealand Police, academics who specialise in international law and people who represent humanitarian organisations.  

Read more background on the role of the IHL Committee.

We provide the Secretariat for the IHL Committee and we also facilitate communication between everyone involved.

Emblems of protection

The Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Crystal are international emblems of protection during armed conflict. In any language they mean 'Don't shoot!' – this person, site, vehicle or equipment is not part of the fight, but is providing impartial humanitarian assistance.

Red Cross emblems information

More information

What is International Humanitarian Law?

The Geneva Conventions

IHL learning resources online