Wars, Laws and Humanity

Even wars have limits. International humanitarian law (IHL) protects people who are not taking part in fighting. Read the latest updates about IHL and the Red Cross emblem.

Wars, Laws and Humanity

Also known as the laws of war, international humanitarian law (IHL) protects people who aren't taking part in the fighting - people like civilians, medics and aid workers. It protects those who can no longer fight, such as wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. IHL also restricts the kind of weapons that can be used. The best-known of these laws are the Geneva Conventions.

For IHL to be useful in times of war, it must be understood during times of peace. We run awareness campaigns and educational programmes to help the public, the Government and other organisations better understand IHL.

Our work includes discussing IHL in schools, running an annual Moot Court competition for law students and educating people about the protected Red Cross emblem.

Even wars have laws

We are proud to offer an educational forum about IHL for year 12 and 13 students. This seminar covers the impact of war on civilians, the international legal framework that protects people and the role of Red Cross. This material can be presented in a special youth-focused seminar at your school.

The ‘Even Wars Have Laws’ seminar helps students learn the relevance of IHL through current events and issues. It also presents personal accounts of people whose lives have been affected by conflict. The seminar is a mix of presentations, activities, role playing and includes an audio visual component.

To book the 'Even Wars Have Laws' seminar at your school, please email ihl@redcross.org.nz.

Emblems of protection

The red cross, red crescent and red crystal are international emblems of protection during armed conflict. The emblems identify people providing medical aid or humanitarian assistance. In any language they mean 'Don't shoot!' - this person, site, vehicle or equipment is not part of the fight, but is providing impartial assistance.

Those who wear the emblems are to be protected at all times. Protected people include medical personnel, chaplains attached to military forces, and humanitarian workers. Medical sites, vehicles and equipment are also marked and protected. Deliberately misusing the emblems to gain a military advantage is a war crime.

Using the emblems in New Zealand

The Red Cross emblem is far more than logo, and its protection is not a matter of a trademark. As the universal emblem of protection in conflict, its use is restricted under IHL - the law primarily set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 - and by New Zealand law. Section 8 of the Geneva Conventions Act 1958 makes it a criminal offence to misuse the emblem in New Zealand. No person or organisation is allowed to use the Red Cross emblem, or a design that is too similar, without the permission of the Minister of Defence.

Red Cross is specifically authorised by government authorities to use the emblem to indicate a person or object is linked to the Red Cross Movement. Even then there are strict regulations about the way it can be used. Red Cross does not 'own' the emblem.

Red Cross is charged with educating the public about the protection of this life-saving emblem and assisting the New Zealand authorities with following up on cases of unauthorised use. We take this role very seriously. Misuse in peacetime is likely to weaken the effectiveness of the emblems during times of war. It can also cause confusion for the public about the humanitarian activities of New Zealand Red Cross. Misuse can either be a straight reproduction of the emblem, or a design that incorporates or stylises the red cross. These examples could be confused with the official Red Cross emblem. Therefore, the New Zealand Defence Force will likely determine that their use is illegal.

How can I help?

You can help by avoiding (and reporting) misuse of the emblem in New Zealand. Email us at: emblem@redcross.org.nz.

Related information:

Emblem video from Australian Red Cross

NZRC Emblem Brochure 2018 (PDF)

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

On 7 July 2017 an historic agreement was made to ban nuclear weapons at a UN Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons.

This treaty was adopted by a vote of 122 in favor, 1 against (The Netherlands) and with 1 abstention (Singapore).

IHL Moot Court competition

The IHL Moot Court competition seeks to raise awareness of the laws of war. It also provides an opportunity for law students to make their case and apply the law in a practical setting of a war crimes tribunal. 

Find out more about the Moot Court competition.

Wars, Laws & Humanity – New Zealand’s engagement with International Humanitarian Law

Armed conflict is the tragic reality that led to the creation of Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention on the rules of war more than 150 years ago. The idea that even war has limits remains of crucial importance. And yet, the nature of warfare and the battlefield has changed so much since that time. Has international humanitarian law (IHL) kept up with these changes? We believe it has.

The pieces in this magazine include stories from the New Zealand wars in the 1860s, New Zealanders involved in WWI and WWII, Vietnam, Bougainville, through to present day dilemmas about drones and ‘killer robots’. What is it like to work in the field of international humanitarian law? How have New Zealanders contributed to the respect for the rules of war and the dignity of persons affected by armed conflict?

In a world in which bad news often dominates, the stories collected in this IHL publication for the centenary of New Zealand Red Cross help to illustrate that even during armed conflict, IHL has been able to operate and change lives. Contributors include historians Dr Vincent O’Malley and Margaret Tennant, Sir Kenneth Keith, Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces Kevin Riordan, and New Zealand’s Disarmament Ambassador Dell Higgie.

International Humanitarian Law magazine (PDF)