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HUMRTS - Principle of Distinction in International Humanitarian Law

Principle of Distinction in International Humanitarian Law

The term international humanitarian law comprises a set of rules, established by treaty or
custom, that outlines the obligations and duties of states to respect, protect and fulfill
human rights. It enables individuals and groups to claim certain behavior or benefits from
government. There are various treaties and conventions pertaining to international
humanitarian laws but the modern international law has two main historical streams; the
law of Hague (law of war proper) and the law of Geneva (humanitarian law). The ICRC is
the only institution explicitly named under international humanitarian law as a controlling
authority. The legal mandate of the ICRC stems from the four Geneva Conventions of 1949,
as well as from its own Statutes. (Pictet, Jean (1975). Humanitarian law and the protection
of war victims. Leyden: Sijthoff. ISBN 90-286-0305-0. pp. 1617)

This essay will focus on the principle of distinction in the customary international law of
the ICRC. First is the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants (ICRC, Vol. 1
Rule 1.). This requires that parties to an armed conflict distinguish between civilians and
combatants and also between civilian objects and military targets. This principle is
indispensable for securing the protection of civilians. Additional Protocols I and II prohibit,
(1) combatants from posing as civilians; (2) indiscriminate attacks;(3) acts of violence or
threats to commit them whose primary purpose is to spread terror; (4) the destruction of
objects that are indispensable to the survival of communities (5) attacks on places of
worship and on monuments. Second, the principle of proportionality, in order to prevent
unnecessary suffering among civilians, the 1977 Additional Protocols seek to ensure
respect for the principle of proportionality in all military operations. They require all those
involved to take every possible precaution with respect to the means and methods of
warfare used so as to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and
damage to civilian objects. Third, the principle of protection, this principle states that those
who are not taking part in an armed conflict must be respected, protected and treated
humanely. The 1977 Additional Protocols specify that: (1) the wounded and sick, both
civilian and military, must be collected and cared for, without discrimination. (2) Women
and children must be respected and protected from any form of indecent assault. (3)
Children and adolescents must be granted special protection. Those under the age of 15
must not be recruited or authorized to take part in hostilities. (4) Family members who are
separated by conflict should be reunited. People also have the right to know the fate of
missing relatives. Fourth is the protection of combatants. The 1977 additional protocols
specify that; (1) injuries and suffering inflicted on an opponent must not exceed that which
is necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective; (2) combatants who are no longer
capable of taking part in military operations may not be attacked; (3) In international
conflicts, combatants who are captured must be presumed to be prisoners of war, and they
must be protected as specified by the Geneva Conventions (4) prisoners of war who cannot
be cared for must be set free. (Distinction, Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict -

These principles of distinction is necessary to accomplish the mission of the ICRC, to
protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide these
victims with assistance, in order to achieve this mission, it must be clearly manifested by
each combatant that the only legitimate object which States should endeavor to accomplish
during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy. (St. Petersburg Declaration,
preamble (cited in Vol. II, Ch. 1, 83))