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What is international humanitarian law?

Even in times of war, there are laws.

International humanitarian law (IHL) is a set of rules which seek to protect people who are not part of the conflict, such as civilians and the wounded. Known as the 'laws of war' they also place restrictions on the means and methods of warfare.

The best known of these 'laws of war' are the Geneva Conventions. These four international treaties form the basis of modern humanitarian law governing the treatment of soldiers and civilians during conflict. They protect:

  1. Wounded and sick soldiers
  2. Wounded, sick and shipwrecked sailors
  3. Prisoners of war
  4. Civilians during war

The four Geneva Conventions were written after the experiences of WWII in an effort to prevent the suffering experienced in that conflict from ever being repeated. They have been officially adopted by every country around the world, and apply today in all international armed conflicts.

Two Additional Protocols have strengthened the protection of people in international and non-international armed conflicts. Customary international law also plays a large part in both international and non-international armed conflicts.

Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a unique association with the Geneva Conventions. As a neutral and independent body, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) acts as an impartial and neutral instrument of humanitarian protection during armed conflicts.

Countries must allow the ICRC to visit prisoners of war in times of armed conflict, as well as permit exchange of family messages and help search for missing persons. Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, such as Australian Red Cross, support this work.


If the laws of war are to be obeyed during armed conflict, they must first be understood before war breaks out. That is why IHL needs to be taught in peacetime to both the armed forces and the general public.

Australian Red Cross engages with these and other groups for whom the law is directly relevant, including the Australian Defence Force, humanitarian actors and journalists working in conflict affected areas. More information for journalists (pdf).

Australian Red Cross also consults with the government, which is responsible for the legislation that puts international treaties into practice locally. More information for Parliamentarians on promoting respect for IHL (pdf).


Breaking the laws of war can be considered a war crime, and can lead to prosecution before national or international courts.

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More information

IHL and the corporate sector: A special edition of the IHL magazine

Journalism and IHL: A special edition of the IHL magazine

Punishing war crimes: A special edition of the IHL magazine

A guide for Parliamentarians: Promoting respect for IHL

IHL training courses

IHL podcast: eminent academics and lawyers unpack the laws of war

The emblems

red cross, red crescent and red crystal

These emblems protect lives: the red cross, red crescent and red crystal. Read more »

Volunteer with IHL


Learn more about volunteering with your local international humanitarian law group.