Origin of International Humanitarian Law

As far back as history books can account for, there existed certain rudimentary principles that governed how wars were fought. These guidelines, though primitive, had similar connotations with the modern principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). As far as 300 BC, there existed rules protecting certain categories of victims of armed conflicts and regulations limiting or prohibiting the use of certain means and methods of warfare.

These ancient rules may not have been adopted for humanitarian purposes but rather with a purely tactical or economic objective; their effect, however, was humanitarian. Building on the footing of these customary dogmas, the foundation for what is now known as international humanitarian law emerged.

These warfare practices were in existence in different parts of the world. There is evidence of rules regarding warfare in ancient China, India, and what we now call the Middle East, dating as far back as two millennia BC.

Modern International Humanitarian Law is recorded to have been begun with the 1864 Geneva Convention. This diplomatic conference was organized to deliberate on, and formalize the proposal of Henry Dunant on the need to formulate a system of principles that would give legal protection to wounded soldiers in the field.

Henry Dunant’s proposal was prompted by the gory and inhumane events of the battle of Solferino which involved Italy, Austria and France. Touched beyond words by the bloodbath of the war, he brought forth a vivid analogy on the horridness of the battle and proposed the aforementioned system. Fortunately, his proposal received wide acclaim and approval around Europe.

This widespread acceptance climaxed in the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Its main objective was to examine the feasibility of Dunant’s proposals and to identify ways to formalize them. After having consulted military and medical experts in 1863, the Geneva Committee persuaded the Swiss Government to convene a diplomatic conference.

Before the 1864 Geneva Convention, in another part of the world, in the United States, Prof. Francis Lieber upon close observation of the unethical warfare practices orchestrated by the Confederacy, raised eyebrows as regards the legal implication of such actions and whether it constituted a gross desecration of military ethics and mode of operation.

Lieber’s code is the first written instrument on the regulation of war. The Lieber code included the humane treatment of the civilian populations in the areas of conflict and forbade the execution of POWs. The Lieber Code was the first official comprehensive codified law that set out regulation for behavior in times of martial law; protection of civilians and civilian property and punishment of transgression; deserters, prisoners of war, hostages and pillaging; partisans; spies; truces and prisoner exchange; parole of former rebel troops; the conditions of an armistice, and respect for human life; assassination and murder of soldiers or citizens in hostile territories; and the status of individuals engaged in a state of civil war against the government. As such, the code was widely regarded as the best summary of the first customary laws and customs of war in the 19th century and was welcomed and adopted by military establishments of other nations.

The development of international humanitarian law still recorded another milestone towards the end of The 1860s. This landmark achievement is referred to as The 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration. This declaration came into being as a result of the Russian government’s refusal to accept the usage of a new invented bullet with explosive effect. The usage of this bullet was prohibited on the premise that its explosive feature negated the purpose of war, which is to disable and weaken the military strength of the enemy.


By accepting this bullet, the suffering of disabled men would be exacerbated and their death would be inevitable. The decisions reached in the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration documented the principles of humanity, avoidance of unnecessary suffering, and balancing of military necessity for the first time.

In the same 1868, the outcome of the 1864 Geneva Convention was supplemented by the 1868 Additional Articles. These additional articles essentially extended the rules of the 1864 Geneva Convention to warfare on the seas in relation to wounded persons in war. This development was closely followed by the 1874 Brussels Declaration and the 1880 Oxford Manual.

The 1874 Brussels Declaration steamed from the flagrant violations of the rules of war by Germany and France who were at war. However, this code wasn’t completely adopted until 1880 when it was slightly modified and adopted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) under a new nomenclature of 1880 Oxford Manual.

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Towards the end of the 19th century, in 1899, a pivotal event in the development of International Humanitarian Law took place. Notably known as The Hague Convention of 1899, it established the treaties, declarations regarding negotiations, demilitarization, the law of wars and war crimes in international law. The decisions at this conference comprised of three treaties and three additional declarations; they were:

  • Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes
  • Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land
  • Convention for the Adaption to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of Geneva Convention of 22 August 1864
  • Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Discharge of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons or by other New Analogous Methods
  • Declaration of Prohibition of the use of Projectiles the Sole Object to spread Asphyxiating Poisonous Gases
  • Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Use of Bullets which can Easily Expand or Change their Form inside the Human Body such as Bullets with a Hard Covering which does not Completely Cover the Core, or Containing Indentations.

The above treaties and declarations of The Hague Convention of 1899 were supplemented by the treaties and declaration of The Hague Convention of 1907 which modified and extended the scope of agreements to also encompass maritime agreements. This convention birthed thirteen treaties (some were modifications of the 1899 Convention while others were totally new); these treaties were:

  • Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes
  • Convention respecting the Limitation of the Employment of Force for Recovery of Contract Debts.
  • Convention relating to the Opening of Hostilities.
  • Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land
  • Convention relative to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in case of War on Land
  • Convention relative to the Legal Position of Enemy Merchant Ships at the start of Hostilities.
  • Convention relative to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into Warships
  • Convention relative to the Laying of Automatic Submarine Contact Mines
  • Convention concerning the Bombardment by Naval forces in Times of War
  • Convention for the Adaption to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention (of 6 July 1906)
  • Convention relative to Certain Restrictions with regard to the Exercise of the Right of capture in Naval War
  • Convention relative to the Establishment of an International Prize Court
  • Convention concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War
  • Declaration Prohibiting the Discharge of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons.

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 were succeeded by the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. The treaties of these conventions have been globally ratified and approved by many countries of the world. The first convention provides for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in the armed forces in the field.

The second convention makes provision for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea. The third convention caters for the protection and treatment of prisoners of war. The crux of the fourth Geneva convention of 1949 relates to the protection of civilian persons in times of war.

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 are complemented by the two Additional Protocols of 1977 which provides for international armed conflict and non-international armed conflict. The agreements reached at the four conventions of 1949 combined with the Additional Protocols of 1977 have together constituted the body of rules and standards governing the operations of international humanitarian law contemporarily.

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