Civilians protected under international humanitarian law

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During the past 60 years the main victims of war have been civilians. The protection of civilians during armed conflict is therefore a cornerstone of international humanitarian law. This protection extends to their public and private property. IHL also identifies and protects particularly vulnerable civilian groups such as women, children and the displaced.

During World War II, and in many of the conflicts since, civilians have been the main victims of armed conflict. Civilians have always suffered in war, but the brutal impact of World War II, which included mass extermination, indiscriminate attacks, deportations, hostage taking, pillage and internment, took a high toll of civilian life. The response of the international community was the Fourth Geneva Convention adopted in 1949.

Before 1949 the Geneva Conventions protected wounded, sick, shipwrecked and captured combatants. The “civilians’ convention” recognized the changing nature of warfare and established legal protection for any person not belonging to armed forces or armed groups. The protection also included civilian property. Such protection was later reinforced with the adoption of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention in 1977.

IHL provides that civilians under the power of enemy forces must be treated humanely in all circumstances, without any adverse distinction. They must be protected against all forms of violence and degrading treatment, including murder and torture. Moreover, in case of prosecution, they are entitled to a fair trial affording all essential judicial guarantees.


On October 25th the annual Irish Red Cross  IHL Conference will take place in Dublin.  This year's focus is IHL and Journalists.  To book a place or lear more about IHL and the Irish Red Cross contact Louise - 

Photo: Photo © ICRC / J. Nachtwey