International Humanitarian Law


International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons to limit the effects of armed conflict on people and objects.  Also known as the law of war or law of armed conflict, IHL protects certain categories of people in times of war, be they international or non-international, and restricts the methods and means of warfare. 

Unlike other types of international law, IHL is binding on all parties to a conflict including non-state actors. IHL bans certain types of weaponry and munitions; prohibits the targeting of civilians; and requires the humane treatment of among others, Prisoners of War (PoWs) and those that are hors de combat.

The International Red Cross Movement is largely responsible for these laws. The organisation was founded on principles outlined by Swiss activist Henry Dunant who was a founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner along with economist Frederic Passy.

Dunant’s principles informed the agreement of the Geneva Conventions which requires signatories to recognise the Red Cross as an impartial agent of humanitarian support to all sides in times of conflict. 

Numerous other IHL treaties and declarations have followed the initial Geneva Convention (1864) such as the Hague Conventions (1899 & 1907), the four Geneva Conventions (1949), and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted by 107 States in Dublin in 2008.

All countries in the world have ratified the Geneva Conventions and therefore are obliged to promote public awareness and understanding of IHL. The International Red Cross Movement is also tasked with promoting IHL.  Here in Ireland, it is the responsibility of the Irish Red Cross, like all national societies, to promote respect and understanding for IHL in the community.  We take part in this through campaigns, conferences, and other forms of communications and education, including our annual IHL Competition, the Corn Adomnáin. 

Ireland and IHL

Ireland is renowned across the world for responding to crises and helping in under-developed areas. Ireland has ratified a large number of IHL treaties and in 2008 Ireland helped broker an agreement on the Convention on Cluster Munitions adopted by 107 states in Dublin.

More recently, Ireland led a diplomatic process that resulted in a Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas. Read more about this here.

Respect for IHL saves lives, reduces human suffering, and ensures protection of human dignity.

IHL plays an important part in protecting those of us who travel to dangerous places on humanitarian grounds. Our many aid workers need knowledge of IHL to protect themselves and those they assist. For Irish Defence Forces on peacekeeping missions with the UN and EU, IHL is often a critical aspect of their mandate. Members of An Garda Síochána and representatives of government departments and diplomatic corps are also afforded vital protections overseas.

Here in Ireland, it is equally important that members of the public are also informed about IHL.  For example, it is crucial that people are aware of the correct use of the Red Cross emblem not only to avoid penalties under Irish law but in order to have a genuine understanding of why the emblem must be protected, and the unique role of the Red Cross, particularly in times of armed conflict. 

 It is also the responsibility of the Irish Red Cross, like all national societies, to undertake a range of actions to promote respect and understanding of IHL in the community.

For IHL to be useful in times of war it must be understood during times of peace. When conflict occurs, it is often too late.

For more information on IHL, please email or call +353 (0)1-642-4600.

Last updated April 2023.