European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Service tools

International Humanitarian Law

Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. © EU/ECHO

What is International Humanitarian Law?

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is a set of rules that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict. It lays out the responsibilities of states and non-state armed groups during an armed conflict. This set of rules defines, among others, the right to receive humanitarian assistance, the protection of civilians (including medical and humanitarian workers), and the protection of refugees, prisoners, the wounded and sick.

IHL is applicable to humanitarian assistance and protection of civilians and is based on the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War and the 1977 and 2005 Additional Protocols. In addition to treaty law, some obligations have also developed into customary international law, i.e. are based on state practice accepted as law. These include rules on the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief and the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel.

The principles that guide humanitarian action – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – also have their basis in IHL.

All EU Member States have ratified the four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. 196 States, including all UN Member States, have ratified the 4th Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Time of War, which equals universal acceptance. However, 22 have not ratified the important 1st Additional Protocol relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts and 28 States have not ratified the 2nd Additional Protocol relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.

What are we doing?

he European Commission, through its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) promotes the global respect of IHL and the humanitarian principles. Examples of activities for the dissemination and implementation of IHL supported by the European Commission include:

  • Funding of partners' IHL advocacy activities (e.g. in Palestine) or doing own IHL advocacy in certain conflicts (e.g. Syria and Colombia)
  • Funding of IHL dissemination targeting a wide range of stakeholders, including military/security forces and armed non-state actors in key conflict-affected countries (e.g. Iraq, Colombia, Ukraine and Afghanistan)
  • Funding activities aimed at increasing the capacities of humanitarian workers in advocating for IHL
  • Raising awareness among partners worldwide about some of the unintended consequences of new counter-terrorism legislation and policies, which may limit humanitarian action and IHL training.
  • Implementing information campaigns, such as the annual World Humanitarian Day campaign, to raise awareness.
Last updated