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Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law

                        Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts*

According to customary international law, only members of the armed forces of a party to a conflict can take part in hostilities, and the law has always attempted to draw a clear distinction between the lawful combatant, who may be attacked, and the civilian, who may not.

One of the Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, which were prepared by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1978, requires parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times “between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare civilian population and property. Neither the civilian population as such nor civilian persons shall be the object of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives.”

Restrictions on the use of chemical or nuclear weapons against the civilian population have been discussed above too.

In addition, the 1981 Conventional Weapons Convention specifically prohibits the use of mines, booby traps, and other similar devices and incendiary weapons directed against the civilian population or used indiscriminately, and the first Protocol of 1977 imposes very detailed target restraints in order to protect civilians. For example, aerial bombardment engaged in for the sole purpose of terrorizing the civilian population is prohibited, and the use of aircraft to carry out such a role would therefore be illegal. Merchant ships may in limited circumstances be attacked, but they may not be sunk by a submarine without its first having placed passengers, crew, and ship’s papers in a place of safety.

*an excerpt from Peter John Rowe’s article – Professor of Law, University of Lancaster, England. Author of Defence: The Legal Implications

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