Defining Armed Conflict in International Humanitarian Law

By Gertrude C. Chelimo
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 3/3 |

The Supreme Court stated that an international armed was a conflict between states, whereas the aim of Common Article 3 was to provide minimum protections in situations involving rebels in conflicts not of an international nature but the Court took a broad approach to Common Article 3 and came to the conclusion that it operated in Hamdan’s circumstances (Duxbury, p 3). The two different views on the ‘war on terror’ show how it is difficulty in determining the dynamics of the situation.

Importance of Classifying Armed Conflicts

The classification of a situation to be an armed conflict means that international humanitarian law comes into force immediately; this means that it provides a framework for the behavior of belligerent parties and the protection of non-combatants and the respect of the environment and the property of civilians.

The failure to classify a state of affairs as an ‘armed conflict’ has grave legal and humanitarian consequences (Duxbury, p 10). This is because, International humanitarian law has a close relationship with law that aims to protect the rights and dignity of civilians during peace and armed conflict with parties of the conflict having legally binding obligations concerning the rights of persons not involved in the conflict (United Nations, 2010). The main principles of international humanitarian law includes: principle of distinction where a combatant should distinguish a non combatant (including a soldier) who has surrendered from a soldier and the distinguishing of military targets from civilian territories, the limited use of certain weapons such as biological weapons, and the protection of the environment (Dinstein, 2004, p 55). Therefore, if it is not in force, belligerent parties will have an extent of freedom in carrying out there activities without checks.

However, there are still situations that are recognized as armed conflicts but there are still breaches of international humanitarian law. In such situations, the role of the Security Council comes in to play in its role of promoting international peace and security according to the UN Charter (Chapter 7, 1945). In the recent times, the Security Council has been more proactive in promoting human rights especially in situations of armed conflicts by imposing economic and political sanctions and more specifically in the establishment of tribunals as is the case of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone (Fleck, 2008, p 275).


The behind classification of armed conflicts as often brought about the failure of international humanitarian law in playing its p. Because of states’ interests, conflicts continue to happen with breaches of human rights and destruction of property continuing to happen. For international humanitarian law to play a crucial part, it needs to adapt and continuously evolve to cater for the changing dynamics of conflicts experienced today.


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District court for the District of Columbia Civil Action No. 04-1519 (JR)