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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Resistance Movements

In 1949, the Geneva Conventions had already established that members of organized resistance movements could benefit from the status of prisoner of war (GCIII Art. 4.a.2). These provisions can thus be extended to members of such groups. In 1977, the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, extended the protection provided by its provisions to other types of armed movements.

Among the legitimate categories of combatants in a conflict, Additional Protocol I identifies the members of “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to a party [to the conflict] for the conduct of its subordinates.” This applies even to parties represented by a government or authority that is not recognized by an adverse party (API Art. 43.1). This provision introduces the possibility of applying Additional Protocol I to conflicts in which government forces are opposed to resistance or national liberation movements.

The conditions set forth by Additional Protocol I are based on the fact that “such armed forces shall be subject to an internal disciplinary system which, inter alia, shall enforce compliance with the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict” (API Art. 43.1). These conditions were established to draw the line between a private and anarchic use of violence and a structured, hierarchic, and controlled use of violence by a military group.

Humanitarian law further takes into account the specificity of certain methods of warfare. It acknowledges that in some situations in armed conflicts, owing to the nature of hostilities, armed combatants cannot distinguish themselves from the civilian population in the required manner. In such cases, they can retain their status as combatants as long as they carry their weapons openly during each military engagement (API Art. 44.3).

Additional Protocol II, relating to Non-International Armed Conflicts, provides for guarantees in the case of individuals detained for reasons related to the armed conflict, without transposing the definition or the status of prisoners of war.

CombatantsCiviliansDetentionDuty of commandersInternmentNon-state armed groupsPrisoners of war

For Additional Information: Abi-Saab, Georges. “War of National Liberation in the Geneva Conventions and Protocols.” Recueil des Cours de l’Académie de Droit International 4, no. 165 (1979):353–445.

Cassese, Antonio. “Resistance Movements.” In Encyclopedia of Public International Law , edited by R. Bernhardt, 4:188–90. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1982.

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