The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


In Times of Armed Conflict

As a general rule, family rights must be protected in all circumstances during armed conflicts (GCIV Art. 27). In addition to this provision, international humanitarian law refers to certain specific provisions for the protection of families, which are applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. These specific rules aim to do the following:

  • Maintain family unity in case of evacuation (GCIV Art. 49.3), detention, or internment (GCIV Art. 82; API Arts. 75.5, 77.4; APII Art. 5.2.a; and Rules 119 and 120 of the 2005 ICRC customary IHL study).
  • Enable the reunion of families dispersed because of the war and facilitate the work of organizations engaged in this task (GCIV Art. 26; API Art. 74; APII Art. 4.3.b; and Rule 131 of the customary IHL study).
  • Permit the exchange of family correspondence, either directly or through a neutral intermediary, such as the Central Tracing Agency (CTA) of the International Committee of the Red Cross (GCIV Arts. 25, 26, and 107). If the parties to the conflict consider it necessary to restrict family correspondence, they may at most restrict such communication to the use of standard forms containing twenty-five freely chosen words and limit the number sent to one each month (GCIV Art. 25). For internees, this limit may not be less than two letters and four cards each month (GCIV Art. 107).
  • Inform members of dispersed families of the fate of their relatives (API Art. 32 and Rule 117 of the customary IHL study).

In Times of Peace or of Internal Disturbances

Family rights are fundamental, tied to the respect for each person’s privacy. They are protected by international human rights conventions and other texts, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The main rights and freedoms are:

  • the right to family reunification (to be found in CRC Arts. 9, 10, and 22 and through the principle of family unity endorsed by the UN Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, GCIV B, 28 July 1951); and
  • the right to the protection of privacy and the right to live as a family (Art. 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Arts. 17, 23, and 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Art. 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; Arts. 9 and 16 of the CRC).

Several actors participate in the protection and implementation of these rights, particularly in times of conflict or tension. It is first and foremost the responsibility of the ICRC and its CTA, often with the cooperation of UN agencies (UNICEF, UNHCR, etc.) and NGOs. In cases that do not come directly under humanitarian law (e.g., in situations of tension that have not reached the level recognized as armed conflict) and that fall outside the ICRC’s area of competence (or if it is absent), UN agencies and NGOs may also establish methods and procedures to search for the families of unaccompanied children.

Family disintegration can be noted in many countries. It is sometimes a direct consequence of war and violence that is specifically and deliberately perpetrated against civilians. The term unaccompanied children (UAC)—which appeared after the genocide committed in Rwanda in 1994—illustrates the scope of the phenomenon. Family disintegration can also be the result of socioeconomic strain.

Whatever the cause, it makes children or groups of children extremely vulnerable. The assistance provided to children in such situations must take this point into consideration and ensure that they are not aggravating the situation by encouraging families to “leave their children.” On the contrary, they must work to reestablish family ties and also provide relief to families.

Central Tracing AgencyChildrenFamily reunificationMissing persons and the deadRed Cross

For Additional Information: ICRC. “Protection of Civilian Persons and Populations in Times of War.” In Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and Their Additional Protocols . Geneva: ICRC, 1995, chap. 4, sect. II.

Plattner, Denise. “Preserving the Family Unit in Situations of Armed Conflict.” International Review of the Red Cross (November 1994).

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