Explainer: what is International Humanitarian Law?

International Humanitarian Law provides vital guidance and boundaries during war and conflict. But what exactly does this body of law entail and does Dorcas need to adhere to it? We explore the importance of international humanitarian law through four questions and answers.

What is International Humanitarian Law?
International Humanitarian Law, also known as the laws of armed conflict, has been established to safeguard human dignity during wars and conflicts, reduce unnecessary suffering and protect the rights of all parties involved, including civilians and combatants. This means, for example, that civilians, wounded soldiers, and even prisoners of war not participating in the armed conflict must be protected. Additionally, the law prohibits the use of children under fifteen as soldiers and specifies that women and children must be shielded from sexual violence. Furthermore, it provides guidelines on weapons not being deployed when civilians are involved in a situation.

Does this law address aid workers?
Yes, it does because according to the laws of war, humanitarian workers must always have unrestricted movement in a crisis area. Denying them access to such areas is prohibited.

What if parties fail to comply with humanitarian law?
Although the rules of international humanitarian law may seem logical, these are often not adhered to in practice. The legal provisions apply to states and, in principle, nations that violate international humanitarian law can be held accountable for their actions by organisations such as the United Nations or the International Court of Justice. However, independent investigators often face difficulties accessing areas where conflict or war is ongoing, making it extremely challenging to obtain the objective information required. Furthermore, although under international humanitarian law, aid workers and convoys must be granted access to war or conflict zones, this does not always happen in practice. And even if various parties exert pressure in such cases, enforcing access remains difficult.

What does humanitarian law mean for an organisation like Dorcas?
Dorcas is an organisation for development and humanitarian assistance that adheres to humanitarian principles and fully supports the provisions of international humanitarian law. Our primary objective is to assist all affected individuals in crisis areas. We remain impartial, neutral and independent, which means that during a conflict, we do not take sides and do not consider a person’s skin colour, political preferences, or which side of the conflict they belong to. Our role as a humanitarian assistance organisation is to identify the person in need and provide assistance under all circumstances.

24 November 2023

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