Legal Status of the Parties to the Conflict
The implementation of humanitarian law—and the signing of special humanitarian agreements between parties to a conflict—has no bearing on the legal or political status of the parties to the conflict or of the territories concerned (GCI–IV Common Art. 3; API Arts. 4, 5.5). This is particularly important because contemporary conflicts frequently oppose national armies to non-state armed groups in international or non-international armed conflicts. This is also important in conflicts between States who do not recognize each other. This measure completes the fact that humanitarian law was conceived to apply between parties who have not necessarily signed the international conventions relative to international humanitarian law. Therefore, conventions distinguish between the “High Contracting Parties,” who are inevitably States, and “Parties to the conflict,” who are often non-state and non-recognized entities, or even criminalized groups. To facilitate respect for humanitarian law in those situations, Common Article 3 to the four Geneva Conventions encourages parties to implement from the beginning of the conflict all or part of the Conventions by way of special agreement.
The fact that belligerents implement humanitarian law does not result in any form of political recognition. Showing respect for the rules of armed conflict does not affect the legal definition or nature of the conflict, of the territories, or of the populations concerned. Humanitarian law is neutral. It is applicable when a specific situation exists: that of war. It can be implemented by parties that do not recognize one another and by non-state entities that have not signed the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC and other humanitarian organizations act as neutral intermediaries between the parties.
It is possible, therefore, to enforce the provisions of humanitarian law through special agreement without having to wait for the different parties to agree on the nature of the conflict and on their respective legal status.
- Humanitarian actors are not constrained by official legal definitions that describe the nature of a conflict or of the parties to the conflict. If the requirements for adequate protection call for provisions to be enforced that are not automatically applicable (e.g., because the provisions are mandatory only in certain circumstances), such provisions can be requested or negotiated and do not represent an infringement on a State’s internal affairs. The possibility of signing special agreements was established specifically so as to enable the parties to a conflict to implement all relevant parts of the Geneva Conventions, including in situations in which they would not automatically be applicable.
- Humanitarian organizations can sign agreements relating to the implementation of humanitarian law with any movement, faction, or unofficial government, without such act implying any form of legal recognition. Special agreements must never weaken the protection provided for by the Geneva Conventions.
- Humanitarian law must be respected by States Parties to the Conventions even if the other party to the conflict is not party to the Conventions or is not a State entity. The obligation to respect humanitarian law is not, in fact, tied to reciprocal levels of commitment (GCI–IV Common Arts. 1 and 2).
▸ Belligerent ▸ High Contracting Parties ▸ International conventions ▸ International humanitarian law ▸ Non-state armed groups ▸ Parties to the conflict ▸ Respect for international humanitarian law ▸ Right of humanitarian initiative ▸ Situations and persons not expressly covered by humanitarian law ▸ Special agreement