The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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

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Protected Objects and Property

International humanitarian law establishes provisions for the general protection of civilian objects and property. It forbids attacks, reprisals, or other acts of violence against such objects, in both internal and international conflicts.

International humanitarian law also sets forth certain more specific rules to reinforce the protection of some of these objects. This specific protection is sometimes linked to the fact that the objects in question carry a distinctive emblem that is protected under humanitarian law. This protection is covered by the provisions of humanitarian law conventions applicable to international and non-international armed conflicts. The study on the rules of customary international humanitarian law published by the ICRC in 2005 (customary IHL study), have recognized that these rules are equally binding in international and non-international armed conflicts (except in rare exceptions). Thus, these rules are binding on all parties to the conflict, even those who have not or cannot sign the conventions, such as non-state armed groups.

This strengthened protection concerns objects such as:

  • medical units, vehicles, and other transport (API Arts. 12, 21; APII Art. 11; Rules 28 and 29 of the customary IHL study);
  • cultural objects and places of worship (API Art. 53, APII Art. 16, and Rules 38–41);
  • protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (API Art. 54, APII Art. 14, Rule 54);
  • natural environment (API Art. 55, Rules 43–45);
  • works and installations containing dangerous forces (API Art. 56, APII Art. 15, and Rule 42);
  • non-defended localities (API Art. 59, Rule 37);
  • demilitarized zones (API Art. 60, Rule 36).

Civilian Objects

Civilian objects are defined as all objects that are not military objectives. Military objectives are limited to objects that, by their nature, location, purpose, or use, make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization offers a definite military advantage. In case of doubt concerning an object normally used for civilian purposes—such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling, or a school—the parties to a conflict must presume that such an object is not being used for military purposes (API Art. 52). Rule 9 of the customary IHL study recalls that civilian objects are “all objects that are not military objectives,” while Rule 10 recalls that civilian objects are protected against attack, “unless and for such time as they are military objectives.” Those rules are applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

Humanitarian law prohibits acts of violence, attacks, and reprisals against civilian objects. Attacks that strike both military objectives and civilian objects indiscriminately are forbidden, as are those whose primary purpose is to spread terror among the civilian population (API Art. 51). Humanitarian law establishes specific precautions that must be taken to limit the effects of attacks on civilian objects and populations (API Arts. 57, 58). Military commanders have the obligation to ensure that these measures are implemented.

Rule 7 of the customary IHL study provides that the parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilian objects (protected objects) and military objectives. It also recalls that attacks may only be directed against military objectives and that they must not be directed against civilian objects. This rule of customary law is applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

Whereas requisition is allowed under certain conditions, pillage is strictly prohibited (GCIV Art. 33, APII Art. 4.2.g). Furthermore, extensive destruction and appropriation of property that is not justified by military necessity is considered a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions (GCI Art. 50, GCII Art. 51, GCIII Art. 130, and GCIV Art. 147).

This protection is complemented by a corollary obligation that armed forces shall not use goods or persons in order to “render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations” (API Art. 51.7). The Conventions further specify that medical units must under no circumstances be used to shield military objectives from attacks (API Art. 12). This specific protection granted to medical units is further developed in the entry on ▸ Medical services .

Humanitarian and relief organizations have the duty to ensure that relief supplies are not diverted and used for military purposes. Otherwise, such organizations risk losing the protection to which they are entitled under the status of civilians and will be exposed to attacks.

AttacksMethods (and Means) of warfare;Military objectivesPillageReprisalsRequisitionWarWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

Cultural Objects and Places of Worship

International law protects the cultural and spiritual heritage of all peoples (historic monuments, works of art, places of worship) through various convetions and customary rules.

The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted under the aegis of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 14 May 1954, specifically for this purpose. The Convention establishes precise rules for the protection of such objects and for the role to be played by UNESCO in this realm. This Convention was complemented by a Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict adopted in The Hague on 14 May 1954. A Second Protocol to The Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted in The Hague on 26 March 1999.

In cases of armed conflict, these cultural objects and places of worship must be respected and safeguarded from the possible effects of war (API Arts. 53, 85.4.d, APII Art. 16) and their intentional attack constitutes a war crime.

Cultural property should be marked with a special distinctive emblem: a shield consisting of a royal blue triangle above a royal blue square on a white background. ▸ Distinctive (or protective) emblems, signs, and signals

Rule 38 of the customary IHL study provides that “each party to the conflict must respect cultural property: a) Special care must be taken in military operations to avoid damage to buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, education or charitable purposes and historic monuments unless they are military objectives and b) Property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people must not be the object of attack unless imperatively required by military necessity.” Rule 39 states that “the use of property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage is prohibited, unless imperatively required by military necessity.” Rule 40 recalls that “each party to the conflict must protect cultural property: a) All seizure of or destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity, education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science is prohibited and b) Any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people is prohibited.” Those rules are applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts. Finally, Rule 41 states that “the occupying power must prevent the illicit export of cultural property from occupied territory and must return illicitly exported property to the competent authorities of the occupied territory”; this rule is only applicable in international armed conflicts.

Enemy Property

This term describes military objectives and civilian objects belonging to the enemy. Civilian objects remain entitled to protection at all times. Such objects may not be used for military purposes or selected as a military objective and, furthermore, must be specifically protected in the case of an attack on nearby military objectives. ▸ Attacks

Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the Civilian Population

Food products, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works are considered by humanitarian law as goods that are essential to the survival of the civilian population and are protected as such. This is tied to the fact that humanitarian law strictly prohibits the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare (API Art. 54, APII Art. 14) as well as any use of terror against them. ▸ Methods (and means) of warfare

Two provisions are meant to ensure the protection of such goods:

  • It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render such goods useless, for the specific purpose of depriving the civilian population of these objects (API Art. 54.2, APII Art. 14, Rule 54 of the customary IHL study).

This prohibition does not apply if the objects are used by a party to the conflict as sustenance solely for the members of its armed forces, or in the case of imperative military necessity. If the objects are used in direct support of military action, they may be attacked, provided that in no event shall such actions result in the starvation of the civilian population or force its displacement (API Art. 54.3, APII Art. 14).

  • It is forbidden to prevent such goods from being supplied or to hinder relief operations delivering such supplies (API Art. 70; APII Art. 18; Rule 55 of the customary IHL study). Furthermore, these objects must not be made the object of reprisals (API Art. 54.4).

International humanitarian law establishes that, if the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of supplies essential to its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, relief societies are entitled to undertake relief actions for the civilian population (APII Art. 18). The list of essential supplies that must be provided is longer in the case of international armed conflicts than internal ones (API Arts. 69, 70).

The fact of intentionally depriving civilians of such goods is a war crime in international armed conflict.

The occupying or detaining power has the obligation to ensure that such relief and supplies are provided to the persons who find themselves under its authority due to situations of occupation, detention, or internment (GCIV Arts. 55, 60, and 81). Furthermore, such persons have the right to receive individual parcels or collective shipments containing relief or other supplies, whether they are in occupied territory or interned (GCIV Arts. 62, 63, and 108–111).

It is forbidden to prevent relief organizations from delivering supplies to civilian populations suffering from undue hardship caused by the lack of adequate food products and medical supplies, whether the hardship is due to the conflict in general (API Art. 70, APII Article 18; Rule 55) or because the civilians are in occupied or besieged territory (GCIV Arts. 59, 17, and 23).

The parties to the conflict have the obligation to protect relief consignments and facilitate their rapid distribution. They only have the right to set the technical conditions under which such passage is permitted and to request guarantees of supervision over the distribution of the relief to the civilian population (API Art. 70.3).

The free passage of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population is thus guaranteed by international humanitarian law (GCIV Arts. 59, 17, and 23; API Art. 70; APII Art. 18; Rule 55) and is linked to the independent monitoring of distribution by the entity supplying the objects.

The list of supplies essential to the survival of the population includes not only food and medical supplies, but also clothing, bedding, means of shelter, objects necessary for religious worship, and any other indispensable objects (API Art. 69).

AssistanceReliefSupplies

Natural Environment

Humanitarian law establishes specific provisions for the protection of the natural environment. Thus, it is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare that are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment and that may threaten the health or survival of the population (API Arts. 35.3, 55). This comes from the principle that establishes that hostilities must not destroy objects that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (APII Art. 14).

The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques, adopted under the aegis of the United Nations on 10 December 1976 and ratified by seventy-six States, also gives some specific provisions with regard to the protection of the environment in time of conflict. Article 1 reads as follows: “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.” This Convention was drafted after the Vietnam war, during which the use of Napalm by the U.S. Army led to the destruction of a great part of Vietnam’s natural environment.

The protection of the natural environment in time of conflict is also codified in customary international humanitarian law. Rule 43 of the customary IHL study gives the general principles on the conduct of hostilities that shall apply to the natural environment:

  1. No part of the natural environment may be attacked, unless it is a military objective.
  2. Destruction of any part of the natural environment is prohibited, unless required by imperative military necessity.
  3. Launching an attack against a military objective which may be expected to cause incidental damage to the environment which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated is prohibited.

This rule is applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

Rule 44 prescribes that “methods and means of warfare must be employed with due regard to the protection and preservation of the natural environment. In the conduct of military operations, all feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental damage to the environment. Lack of scientific certainty as to the effects on the environment of certain military operations does not absolve a party to the conflict from taking such precautions”; while Rule 45 states that the use of methods or means of warfare that are “intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment is prohibited. Destruction of the natural environment may not be used as a weapon.” Those two latter rules are applicable in international armed conflicts. Their customary character has not yet been established in non-international armed conflicts.

The protection of the environment is intimately linked with the protection of water resources and water installations. Indeed, water is often used as a target in armed conflicts, in order to displace or starve the civilian population. This is why water supply and repair of water conveyance systems are often one of the primary tasks undertaken by humanitarian organizations during armed conflicts, notably in refugee camps and IDP camps. As to the protection of water in armed conflicts, humanitarian law does not provide a specific regime of protection. Nonetheless, water is a protected civilian object, as it is indispensable for the survival of the civilian population. As such, attacks against water resources and water installations are prohibited.

Works and Installations Containing Dangerous Forces

Works or installations containing dangerous forces (namely, dams, dikes, and nuclear electricity-generating stations)—as well as other military objectives located at or in the vicinity of these works—must not be targets of attack. This applies “even where these objects are military objectives, if such attack may cause the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population” (API Art. 56, APII Art. 15).

The few derogations that are allowed are strictly regulated:

The special protection against attack . . . shall cease

  1. for a dam or a dyke only if it is used for other than its normal function and in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support;
  2. for a nuclear electrical generating station only if it provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support;
  3. for other military objectives located at or in the vicinity of these works or installations only if they are used in regular, significant and direct support of military operations and if such attack is the only feasible way to terminate such support. (API Art. 56.2)

Furthermore, these works or installations should be marked with a distinctive emblem consisting of a group of three bright orange circles placed on the same axis (API Art. 56.7; API Annex I, Art. 16).

Rule 42 of the customary IHL study prescribes that “particular care must be taken if works and installations containing dangerous forces, namely dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations, and other installations located at or in their vicinity are attacked, in order to avoid the release of dangerous forces and consequent severe losses among the civilian population.” This rule is applicable in international and non-international armed conflicts.

The Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted on 17 July 1998 and entered into force on 1 July 2002. Article 8 of the Statute defines the war crimes over which the Court has jurisdiction, once the conditions required to trigger the exercise of its jurisdiction have been met. Whether committed during an international or internal armed conflict, these war crimes include:

  • deliberately launching attacks against civilian objects;
  • intentionally directing attacks against installations, material, units, or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict;
  • deliberately directing attacks against medical installations and material;
  • launching attacks in the knowledge that such attacks may cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment, and would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
  • attacking or bombarding towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings that are undefended and are not military objectives;
  • intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science, or charitable purposes, as well as historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are gathered, provided that such building are not being used for military purposes.

AttacksCiviliansDistinctive (or protective) emblems, signs, and signalsFamineFoodInternational Criminal CourtMedical servicesMethods (and means) of warfareMilitary objectivesPopulation displacementProportionalityProtected personsReliefReprisals

For Additional Information: Amnesty International. “Collateral Damage” or Unlawful Killings? Violations of the Laws of War by NATO during Operation Allied Force . Available at http://www.amnesty.org/ailib/intcam/kosovo .

Antoine, Philippe. “International Humanitarian Law and the Protection of the Environment in Time of Armed Conflict.” International Review of the Red Cross 291 (November–December 1992): 517–37.

Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

“Environment.” International Review of the Red Cross 879 (September 2010): 541–835.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, part 2.

ICTY. Final Report to the Prosecutor by the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing Campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia . Available at http://www.icty.org/sid/10052 .

Oeter, Stefan. “Protection of Civilians Objects.” In The Handbook of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflicts , edited by Dieter Fleck, 169–93. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Partsch, Karl Josef. “Protection of Cultural Property.” In The Handbook of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflicts , edited by Dieter Fleck, 377–404. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Tignino, Mara. “Water, International Peace and Security.” International Review of the Red Cross 879 (September 2010): 647–74.

Toman, Jiri. The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict . Paris: UNESCO, 1996.

Wyatt, Julian. “Law-Making at the Intersection of International Environmental, Humanitarian and Criminal Law: The Issue of Damage to the Environment in International Armed Conflict.” International Review of the Red Cross 879 (September 2010): 593–646.

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