For the treaties of international humanitarian law (IHL) and other relevant instruments to be accepted worldwide, national governments must formally adopt them by the process of ratification or accession. States must then pass legislation and take regulatory and practical measures for the rules of IHL to be fully effective.
IHL treaties and other relevant instruments cover a wide range of topics, from the protection of wounded and sick military personnel, prisoners of war and civilians; the prohibition or limitation of certain weapons such as anti-personnel landmines, chemical and biological weapons, and cluster munitions; to the restriction of certain combat tactics.
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 constitute the core IHL instruments. All States have accepted the Conventions, thereby being bound by the obligations contained therein. Through the years, several treaties and other instruments regulating specific IHL issues have been adopted.
In order for the rules of IHL to be truly effective, it is important that States ratify or accede to the many treaties and other relevant instruments that make up the body of IHL. However, adopting these treaties is only a first step.
Most IHL instruments oblige States to undertake certain domestic actions of compliance, including taking up legislative, regulatory and practical measures. For example, under the Geneva Conventions, States are obliged to put an end to all violations contained therein and to prosecute and punish those violations that are considered the most serious, called “grave breaches” and regarded as war crimes.
Practical measures that States are to take include the following: integrating IHL into training and military manuals, marking protected objects such as cultural heritage sites, and delivering identification cards to combatants and protected persons. In addition, States have to spread the knowledge of IHL.
To facilitate all this work, many States have established national IHL committees and similar inter-ministerial bodies.
The ICRC plays a key role in supporting national implementation and enforcement of IHL. The ICRC’s Advisory Service offers legal advice and technical assistance to States authorities; it provides specialized tools for IHL implementation, including ratification kits, model laws, thematic factsheets, a comprehensive manual on domestic implementation of IHL, and supports the work of IHL Committees and similar bodies.