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What is international humanitarian law?

A man wearing a red cross emblem walks through rubble next to a bombed out carEven in times of war, there are rules.

International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek to protect people who are not or are no longer participating in armed conflict, like civilians and wounded, sick or shipwrecked members of the armed forces. It also restricts the means and methods of warfare.

Also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict, the best known of these rules are the four Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Symbols of protection

Central to the idea of protection are the emblems, the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal.  They are symbols of the protection to be granted to medical and religious personnel, medical units and means of transport during armed conflict.

The emblems can also be used to show a link to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, particularly in peacetime. Because the emblems need to be instantly recognisable as a symbol of protection during armed conflict, there are strict rules governing their use.


If the rules are going to be obeyed during armed conflict, they must be understood before armed conflict breaks out. That is why IHL needs to be taught in peacetime to both the armed forces at all levels and the general public, particularly through universities, schools and other educational establishments.


Breaches of these rules will often amount to a criminal offence. These offences may amount to “war crimes” and can lead to prosecution anywhere in the world before national or international courts.

Read about the Geneva Conventions

Find out about the emblems

Learn about the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

Find out how war criminals are prosecuted on the ICRC’s website

Teachers’ resource: Ten minute briefing on the law of war

Read about IHL on the ICRC’s website