What is international humanitarian law?

Even wars have limits. International humanitarian law (IHL) protects people who are not taking part in fighting. 

Also known as the laws of war, IHL protects people who aren't taking part in the fighting - including civilians, medics and aid workers - as well as 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.

The Geneva Conventions protect the core of humanity

People and their needs are at the centre of the Geneva Conventions. They were designed to protect people’s safety, dignity and wellbeing during armed conflict, especially those who are most vulnerable, including children, women, older people, injured and sick people, people with disabilities and detained people. The Geneva Conventions have saved countless lives and reduced suffering across hundreds of armed conflicts in the past 70 years.

The Red Cross is involved in humanitarian responses to conflicts around the world. Every day we see what the law can do to protect people: a wounded person allowed through a checkpoint; a child who receives the food they need; people in detention who are able to send messages to their families; and many other examples. The law can and does work to protect vulnerable people.

Respecting the Geneva Conventions is as important as ever. Though the Geneva Conventions are universally ratified, they are not universally respected. It is still relevant and important to reaffirm that people must be treated with humanity, even in armed conflict. When they are not respected, there can be devastating humanitarian consequences. Basic rules ensure that even enemies are seen as human beings.

For human stories about the impact of the Geneva Conventions, view our IHL Human Stories report

Our role in IHL

For IHL to be useful in times of war, it must be understood during times of peace. New Zealand Red Cross runs 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, Red Crescent and Red Crystal emblems.

Watch the ICRC video Rules of War, in a Nutshell

IHL — Principles for protecting those who are not or no longer fighting 

As a member of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, New Zealand Red Cross calls on all parties to conflict to uphold International Humanitarian Law. We advocate for the following principles to apply in armed conflicts in all circumstances:

  1. The parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to those suffering from the conflict. This includes  passage offered by independent and impartial humanitarian bodies including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.
  2. Civilians must be allowed to escape the conflict, whether a formal safe passageway has been made available or not.
  3. Parties to the conflict do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means of warfare.
  4. The principles governing the conduct of hostilities — notably precaution, distinction and proportionality — are of particular importance in urban warfare. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area impact should also be avoided in populated areas.
  5. Military operations must distinguish between combatants and civilians who are not directly participating in the hostilities, and attacks directed at civilians only  are prohibited.
  6. Military operations must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects, such as hospitals and cultural property, and attacks directed at civilian objects are prohibited.
  7. Those held in detention in the course of armed conflict are entitled to respect for their lives and physical and moral integrity.

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 assistance. Read more about the red cross emblem.

NZRC Emblem Brochure 2018 (PDF)

IHL resources

There is a wealth of resources highlighting the importance and impacts of IHL.

ICRC videos and e-learning

Victory By Any Means

Can One Decision Change Your Life?

Why We Can’t Save Her Life 

Don't Be Numb campaign

Introduction to International Humanitarian Law (e-learning course)

The Seven Fundamental Rules of IHL with Sir Kenneth Keith


IHL Answers to Your Questions

Women and War

IHL magazine

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 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 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.

See the following pages for the New Zealand context of IHL:

  • New Zealanders Enforcing IHL, pg 29-32
  • Japanese POW in Featherston, pg 11-12
  • The Bougainville Conflict, pg 17-20
  • The Fight to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, pg 21-22

International Humanitarian Law magazine (PDF)