Law of Armed Conflict

  1. definition
  2. examples and/or illustrations
  3. other useful sources
  4. bibliography
  5. Other related terms


The law of armed conflict is defined as the requirement of states to use their military capabilities while ensuring that humanitarian values are being observed; although the two have irreconcilable differences they must be mutually consistent in order to protect civilians in armed conflict situations (Harold et al., 4).  Violence in war is often carried out through the destruction and devastation of both human and material values (Harold et al., 4); because of this attempts have been made to devise limits in through the law against the use of coercion and violence by governments in times of conflict. The law of armed conflict applies to internal and international conflict and is designed to protect human values.

Contemporary law of armed conflict dates from the American Civil War when Francis Lieber was asked by President Abraham Lincoln to draft and codify the laws of war in order to to regulate armed conflict (Red Cross 1). On April 24 1863, the Lieber Code was adopted by the United States Army and would have a strong influence on future codifications of the laws of armed conflict, as it was the first attempt to codify customs and practices of war, into laws (Red Cross 4). The Lieber Code is a military order containing 157 articles that instruct soldiers in conflict of their obligations and permitted conduct during war. It is designed to protect civilians and limit hostilities in war and is based on governments maintaining a balance between preserving human dignity and the use of military necessity enforced by a set of laws.

The 1864 Geneva Convention was influenced by the Lieber Code and is known as the ‘Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded Armies in the Field’ (ICRC 2014). The main principles of the convention were:

  1. Relief to the wounded without any distinction as to nationality;
  2. Neutrality (inviolability) of medical personnel and medical establishments and units;
  3. The distinctive sign of the red cross on a white ground

The Hague Convention IV of 1907 replaced the 1864 Geneva Convention. ‘Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, and its Annexed Regulations’ was a multilateral treaty that still binds states that were independent in 1907 (Harold et al., 4). After World War II and violations of the Hague Convention IV, the Geneva conference in 1949 sought to prevent the repetition of the atrocities of the war (Harold et al., 4). The result was four Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims, multilateral agreements that countries agreed to sign onto. Adopting these provisions would ensure protection for noncombatants in violent conflict.

  1. Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.
  2. Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea.
  3. Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
  4. Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.


To date there exists a body of law, a combination of international armed conflict law, international human rights law and international criminal law that attempts to govern armed conflict (Sivakumaran, 2).  The laws of armed conflict are a part of a universal body of law and it covers two areas: the protection of individuals who are not involved in the conflict and restrictions on their means of warfare, particularly weapons and military tactics (ICRC, 2). It is “…forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who surrenders or is unable to fight; the sick and wounded must be collected and cared for by the party in whose power they find themselves. Medical personnel, supplies, hospitals and ambulances must all be protected” (ICRC, 2). There are also explicit rules, which govern the conditions of detention for those who are prisoners of war, the treatment of civilians under the authority of enemy powers and includes provision of food, medical care and shelter (ICRC, 2). These are all ways in which the law of armed conflict seeks to protect those who are not involved in situations of violence and civil unrest, by setting out restrictions on states in their tactics and use of weapons and tactics during conflict.

Examples and/or Illustrations

  1. International Humanitarian Law: A Universal Code https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/audiovisuals/video/00981-humanitarian-law-universal-code-video-2009.htm
  2. Rules of War in a Nutshell https://www.icrc.org/en/document/rules-war-nutshell#.VFH53UtK9AI
  3. War in Central African Republic (Part 1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwJEtTMUkzM
  4. Basic Rules of Humanitarian Law https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3G3PO9rVtsw

Other Useful Sources

What is International Humanitarian Law (Pamphlet)


International Humanitarian Law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts


The Domestic Implementation of International Humanitarian Law


Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949



Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 – Factsheet. (2013, December 1). Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/additional-protocols-geneva-conventions-1949-factsheet#.VFIAg0tK9AI

Boothby, B. (2012). Differences in the law of weaponry when applied to a non-international armed conflict. Israel Yearbook on Human Rights, 42, 83-96. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/1350887986?accountid=15182

“Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Geneva, 22 August 1864.” TREATIES AND STATES PARTIES TO SUCH TREATIES. International Committee of the Red Cross. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <https://www.icrc.org/ihl/INTRO/120?OpenDocument>.

“Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field (Lieber Code). 24 April 1863.” TREATIES AND STATES PARTIES TO SUCH TREATIES. International Committee of the Red Cross. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. <http://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m16240360_Lieber_Code_lesson.pdf>.

Sivakumaran, S. (2011). Re-envisaging the international law of internal armed conflict. European Journal of International Law, 22(1), 219. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/docview/863794423?accountid=15182

The Domestic Implementation of International Humanitarian Law. (2013, April). Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-4028.pdf

“The Lieber Code: Limiting the Devastation of War.” Red Cross. International Committee of the Red Cross. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. <http://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m16240360_Lieber_Code_lesson.pdf>.

What is International Humanitarian Law. (2004, July 1). Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/what_is_ihl.pdf

Other related terms

  • International Human Rights Law
  • 1863 Lieber Code
  • Geneva Convention (1864, 1907, 1949)