International Humanitarian Law and the Conduct of War

• War has rules that all countries should respect, but that are difficult to apply.

• The Geneva Conventions provide protection for the victims of war.

• Weapons of mass destruction still pose an enormous threat in today's world, and global efforts to control their proliferation are still incomplete.

Updated •
February 13, 2024
Photo: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan / Flickr

The Law of War – The Paradoxes of International Humanitarian Law

International humanitarian law (IHL) attempts to balance military necessity and humanitarian protection during wars. It is built on a few key principles, including proportionality, which aim to regulate warfare. But managing to apply these principles on the battlefield, where emotion and military necessity often go unmatched in terms of importance, is very difficult. Furthermore, views on what acceptable collateral damage is differ - the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings in 1945, justified on the grounds of stopping the war, exemplify it best. All in all, IHL provides a pragmatic legal framework to limit suffering in war, but implementing its principles requires complex ethical judgements.

The Law of War – The Paradoxes of International Humanitarian Law

The Law of War – The Paradoxes of International Humanitarian Law
Photo: UNMISS / Flickr

International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as ‘The Law of War’ or ‘The Law of Armed Conflict’, sets out the rules and obligations applicable to all parties involved in armed conflict.

It is a body of law and a set of rules which, for humanitarian reasons, seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict. Its aim is to protect individuals who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities. IHL regulates the means and methods of warfare. It applies to all parties involved in hostilities or armed conflict, whether they are states or non-state actors.

The essence of IHL is to strike a careful balance between measures required to achieve the purpose of war (military necessity) and the need to protect persons affected by armed conflicts (principle of humanity). At first glance, this may seem paradoxical.

Indeed, there seems to be an inherent contradiction between the pursuit of victory through force, which military leaders see as necessary, and the goal of protecting human rights, which humanitarian principles demand. The question may be asked: how can International Humanitarian Law set out legal guidelines for waging war and, at the same time, aim at protecting innocent people affected by war? The answer, for IHL, is legal pragmatism.

If one takes the analogy of smoking: outright prohibition of smoking is almost universally considered unrealistic, as people would likely smoke illegally regardless of the law. So governments impose controls like age limits, warning labels, smoking areas, and tobacco taxes to deter smoking and mitigate its public health impacts. The law takes a pragmatic regulatory approach rather than an outright prohibition, a configuration which would arguably lead to uncontrolled consequences.

Similarly, it would likely be counterproductive to ban war under international law, as armed conflicts would likely continue to occur outside of law. Making law legal also means creating rules for its conduct. As a result, IHL recognizes military victory as a legitimate goal, while aspiring to the protection of humanity. Principles like "military necessity" and "proportionality" aim to regulate the excesses of war. These two principles underlie the core “principle of humanity” in the conduct of war.

The principle of "military necessity" legitimises states using force only when required for national security and defence, to prevent occupation by hostile forces, or to enable a rapid end to hostilities under reasonable conditions. It does not permit unrestrained warfare for political or economic gain. While not formally codified verbatim in IHL treaties, the principle of military necessity and its limitations is widely considered part of the laws governing warfare.

As part of the pragmatic approach laid out by international humanitarian law, the principle of proportionality acknowledges that some civilian casualties may occur, but requires these be minimised as much as possible.  The principle of proportionality dictates that the anticipated military advantage gained from any military attack must outweigh the expected harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure. It seeks to restrict excessive use of force and protect civilian lives.

The principle of humanity directly requires parties in a conflict to avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering. It encompasses, but goes beyond, the principle of proportionality. Humanity demands respectful treatment for civilians and combatants, including the provision of adequate food, shelter, and medical care for those affected by conflict. It prohibits torture, collective punishment, and other cruel practices.

The paradox arises because the pursuit of military victory often seems to require actions that cause human suffering, like bombing campaigns or siege tactics. Yet IHL simultaneously demands protecting human life and dignity.

Proportionality seeks to strike a balance, but ambiguities remain. What constitutes<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">"concrete and direct"</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>This is used as a criterion to define military necessity, as described in Article 51 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I).</div></div></span>military advantage? How does one measure lives lost versus lives potentially saved? These highly subjective questions render the conduct of wars complex and fraught with moral dilemmas.

Determining Proportionality: Theory and Practice

In theory, International Humanitarian Law sets out a legal framework that combines military necessity with the principle of humanity. However, putting this into practice during armed conflict is fraught with challenges. A key difficulty is calculating the proportionality of a military attack versus potential civilian harm. How can combatants weigh split-second decisions between the need for military victory and respect for human rights on the battlefield?

Interpretations of acceptable collateral damage versus excessive force often vary based on perspective.<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">Proportionality</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>Ucaryilmaz, T. The Principle of Proportionality in Modern Ius Gentium. Utrecht Journal of International and European Law, 2021.</div></div></span>is subjective, situational, and driven by one's vantage point. Hence, reconciling military necessity and civilian protection under IHL frameworks remains an ongoing challenge.

Many examples from armed conflicts confirm this. The most infamous one may be the<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">atomic bombings</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>Barrett, D. Cities Reduced to Ashes. American Heritage, 2023.</div></div></span>of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. These bombings killed approximately 200,000 Japanese civilians, yet US military leadership justified the action as necessary and proportionate to hasten Japan's surrender and end the war.

More recently, the US interrogation program following the 9/11 attacks employed methods widely classified as torture by human rights groups. However, government lawyers at the time<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">argued</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>McCoy, A. A question of torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Metropolitan Books, 2007.</div></div></span>these methods were legally permissible and proportionate given the imminent national security threat posed by terrorism. Debates continue regarding whether post-9/11 policies upheld or violated proportionality principles in the Geneva Conventions and international law.

Furthermore, the norms and interpretations of proportionality have shifted over time with the evolution of international law and customs. Ideas about what constitutes a proportional response in war have changed over time. Military tactics that were permissible in past wars are now questioned in retrospect, and new weapons and tactics raise new questions that need to be answered.

Protection of Civilians Under International Humanitarian Law

One of the primary objectives of International Humanitarian Law is the protection of persons who are not or no longer taking part in hostilities. This includes civilians, as well as wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces. IHL requires that these individuals be treated humanely, which means they should not be subjected to violence, intimidation, or any form of discrimination. The law also prohibits all attacks on civilians, as well as acts of terrorism and hostage-taking.

In addition to general protections for all civilians, International Humanitarian Law has specific provisions for safeguarding vulnerable groups who may be disproportionately impacted by armed conflict, such as children, women, the elderly, and the disabled. Specific IHL conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, establish such protections. This includes extra safeguards for children, prohibitions on recruiting child soldiers, measures to protect expectant mothers, and requirements to care for those unable to flee conflict areas.

In principle, IHL provides a legal framework for the conduct of hostilities by limiting the methods and means of warfare. Under IHL, the use of weapons that are likely to cause unnecessary suffering or that are indiscriminate in the injuries they cause, such as chemical or biological weapons, is prohibited.

The law requires all parties in a conflict, without exception, to take all necessary precautions to avoid harming civilians and hitting civilian infrastructure. Attacks on people's homes, public schools, hospitals, water systems, food supplies, or agricultural lands are considered serious violations of IHL. In general, any attack on civilian facilities upon which people's livelihoods and general well-being depend is a violation of IHL.

In addition to civilian infrastructures, IHL provides for the protection of cultural property, artefacts, and the natural environment during armed conflicts. It requires that parties to the conflict take all measures possible to protect these objects and places. It prohibits any deliberate or indiscriminate destruction of cultural heritage. Any attempt to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless any of these civilian objects or facilities is<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">considered</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>See Article 54(2) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I of the IHL.</div></div></span>a war crime.


International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and International Criminal Law – Similarities and Differences

Three main bodies of law work together to protect human rights globally. International Humanitarian Law focuses on setting rules for armed conflict to limit harm to civilians. Human Rights Law promotes human rights that all people deserve. International Criminal Law punishes individuals who commit terrible crimes like genocide. While each law has a different focus, they complement each other in their shared goal of defending human dignity and reducing violence globally. The relationship between these different bodies of law is extremely important for anyone trying to understand what human rights mean and what is being done to ensure that they are respected.

International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and International Criminal Law – Similarities and Differences

International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and International Criminal Law – Similarities and Differences
Photo: UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia / Flickr

To avoid any mix-up or confusion, it is necessary to clarify the similarities and differences between International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Human Rights Law (HRL) and International Criminal Law (ICL). While IHL, HRL and ICL are key features of international law, there are differences in their provision and application.

Human Rights Law

Human Rights Law (HRL), or International Human Rights Law, protects the universal rights of all people everywhere regardless of race, religion, gender, or other differences. These rights are fundamental: every human being is entitled to them and they cannot be removed. Behind this idea lies the principle that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth simply by virtue of being human. Such an approach means that human rights are universal, inalienable, and indivisible.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is not a substitute for Human Rights Law. While both laws share some common objectives, such as the protection of individuals, there are also important differences between them.

Firstly, human Rights Law always applies, while International Humanitarian Law has a more narrow focus, as it applies only during armed conflicts. That is why IHL is often referred to as “the law of armed conflict”. Human Rights Law provides more extensive protection for individuals, including economic, social, and cultural rights.

<h6 class="textbox" font-size:14px>The most important human rights instrument is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the UN.</h6>

While IHL and HRL have specific norms, the main similarity is their common goal: the protection of the individual. This protection covers, among other things, people’s physical and mental integrity, and human dignity. So while distinct, they are complementary frameworks with a common spirit at their core - shielding human life and dignity from violence and deprivation.

International Criminal Law

The principles and rules of International Criminal Law (ICL) have been developed over the years by international legal institutions. These include the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The 1998 Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, is the cornerstone of the current ICL framework. 123 states have ratified or acceded to the Statute as of 2023.

International Criminal Law enables the prosecution and punishment of individuals for particularly serious international crimes. These crimes include genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. ICL applies at all times, during both war and peace. It holds both states and individuals criminally responsible for these grave breaches of international law that deeply offend human dignity.

<h6 class="textbox" font-size:14px>While international criminal law establishes accountability for grave crimes, its application relies on state cooperation. Many countries have not ratified the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court, meaning perpetrators in those nations cannot be tried at the ICC without a UN Security Council referral.</h6>

While International Humanitarian Law aims to regulate the means and methods of warfare to reduce human costs, ICL focuses on criminal offences through prosecution. Their main differentiating point is thus their focus: IHL on the victim, and ICL on the perpetrator.

The difference between Human Rights Law and International Criminal Law also revolves around its focus. Human Rights Law takes a comprehensive approach aimed at promoting and protecting the full spectrum of human rights globally. For example, HRL covers rights to education, health, free speech and assembly that should be upheld for all people. ICL, on the other hand, is concerned with accountability and justice for four specific acts that constitute international crimes - genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.


Principles and Scope of International Humanitarian Law

International humanitarian law (IHL) attempts the profound yet difficult task of preserving human dignity even in the ravages of war. To restrain brutality, IHL establishes three core principles - distinction between combatants and civilians, proportionality in attacks, and precaution against harm. However, applying such lofty ideals amid the passions and urgencies of war often proves challenging. Despite the existence of such rules, it is difficult to articulate the chaos that war can bring with the application of these rules. Yet the attempt expresses the hope that even in war's darkest moments, humanity can still shine through.

Principles and Scope of International Humanitarian Law

Principles and Scope of International Humanitarian Law
Photo: John and Melanie (Illingworth) Kotsopoulos / Flickr

International humanitarian law (IHL) aims to strike a balance between military necessity and considerations of humanity. To achieve this goal, IHL establishes three core principles: Distinction, Proportionality, and Precaution.

Principle of Distinction

The principle of distinction requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between those participating and those not participating in hostilities. Specifically, those involved in warfare - including combatants, commanders, and strategists - must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants such as civilians, the sick, wounded, or captured. This means civilians or anyone who is not a combatant should not be attacked. By distinguishing participants from non-participants, the principle of distinction aims to limit the effects of armed conflict and protect those not involved in hostilities. 

International Humanitarian Law strictly protects prisoners of war (POWs). The principle of distinction requires POWs to be treated humanely and their dignity respected, despite being captured enemies. IHL absolutely prohibits any ill-treatment, violence, or cruelty against POWs. It mandates they receive adequate food, shelter, medical care and communication rights. 

Many acts are considered violations of the dignity of Prisoners of War (POWs) under IHL.

These, amongst many others, include:

 • Torture and Cruel Treatment: Inflicting physical or mental harm, torture, or subjecting POWs to inhumane treatment.

 • Humiliating or Degrading Treatment: Subjecting POWs to humiliating acts, such as forcing them to perform degrading acts, using derogatory language, or public humiliation.

 • Denial of Proper Medical Care: Failing to provide adequate medical attention and care to sick or injured POWs, or denying them access to necessary medical treatment.

 • Forced Labour or Slavery: Forcing POWs to engage in forced labour, servitude, or any form of slavery.  

 • Denial of Basic Needs: Withholding essential supplies like food, water, shelter, and clothing from POWs.

 • Forced Propaganda or Ideological Indoctrination: Coercing POWs to make statements against their will, or subjecting them to forced ideological indoctrination or interfering with their freedom of thought.

While combatants and military targets may lawfully be attacked during armed conflict, such attacks must only be directed at concrete and direct military objectives that offer a definite military advantage. All participants in warfare are required to take precautionary measures in the way they conduct the war and respect the principle of proportionality.

Principle of Proportionality 

The principle of proportionality suggests that all military attacks must be proportionate to the threat. An attack that causes excessive incidental damage in relation to the anticipated military advantage would be considered disproportionate under International Humanitarian Law. 

There are historical examples of ‘disproportionate’ attacks carried out by countries in violation of IHL. One of these is the<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">bombing of the city of Guernica</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>Corum, J. S. The Persistent Myth of Guernica. Military History Quarterly, 2010.</div><br><br><div>—</div><div>Hugh, T. The Spanish Civil War. Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961.</div></div></span>during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The attack was conducted by the German Luftwaffe, supporting General Franco's nationalist forces against the Republican government. Within three hours, these bombings caused widespread destruction and killed between 250 and 300 civilians. It was widely regarded as a disproportionate and indiscriminate act of aggression, which violated the principles of distinction and proportionality under IHL, failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians or to adhere to any standard of proportionality in the attack.

Another example of a “disproportionate attack” occurred in the 2008-2009 Gaza War between Israel and Hamas. In response to indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, Israel launched a military operation that involved airstrikes and artillery shelling, targeting various sites in Gaza. Critics<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">argued</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>Falk, R. Israel’s war crimes. Le Monde diplomatique, 2009.</div></div></span>that Israel's response was disproportionate because the extent of damage and civilian casualties caused by its attacks seemingly exceeded the threat posed by Hamas' rocket fire. The United Nations and various human rights organisations raised concerns about the high number of civilian casualties, including women and children, and the destruction of infrastructure.

In these two examples, determining what constitutes a ‘disproportionate’ attack is a complex and contentious issue. 

Principle of Precaution

The principle of precaution requires parties to armed conflicts to select and implement methods of warfare with care and caution. This principle underlies many of the rules in international humanitarian law (IHL) that prohibit certain unethical methods of warfare. 

The principle of precaution emphasises the need to minimise the harm inflicted on civilians and civilian objects during military operations. In essence, the principle is a practical way of resolving or managing the tension between the ‘principle of military necessity’ and the ‘principle of proportionality’ to ensure hostilities are conducted in a humane way.

This means all military actions should be planned and executed in a measured way. Under this principle of precaution, military commanders are required to assess the potential risks and consequences of their military actions. It is their obligation to ensure that any anticipated harm to civilians is proportionate to the military advantage they seek to gain from any action. 

In practical terms, this requires choosing means and methods of warfare that minimise harm to civilians and refraining from using unethical or inhumane methods. A few different methods fit this description: the use of perfidy, terror, famine, pillage, or hostage-taking, for instance. Similarly, weapons that can cause superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering or indiscriminate harm or casualties, are prohibited under IHL. 

The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are the key treaties that prohibit these unethical methods of warfare. 

Nation-states, individuals, military commanders, members of the armed forces, organised armed groups and international organisations can be prosecuted for war crimes under IHL. IHL offers personal protection to everyone, including Prisoners of War (POW), members of the armed forces, civilians, combatants, and those who no longer participate in hostilities. 

A core aim of International Humanitarian Law is to preserve human life and dignity even amid the devastation of war. To that end, IHL establishes protections for individuals most vulnerable to suffering and mistreatment during armed conflict. 


Core Treaties of International Humanitarian Law

The Geneva Conventions form the bedrock of international humanitarian law, establishing protections for civilians and combatants that stand to this day. Drafted in 1949 as the world began to recover from the devastation of World War II, the Conventions codified the duty to uphold human dignity even amid the horrors of conflict. The Conventions mandate care for the wounded and humane treatment of prisoners of war. Uniquely, they set basic standards for all conflicts - civil and interstate alike. They were enriched by the Additional Protocols in 1977 to account for the evolution of modern combat and to address gaps in the protection of civilians. As new technologies and tactics emerge, upholding human rights requires a constant re-examination of the way we wage war.

Core Treaties of International Humanitarian Law

Core Treaties of International Humanitarian Law
Photo: International Institute of Humanitarian Law

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is codified in several key treaties that aim to regulate the conduct of parties during armed conflict and protect victims of war. The main IHL treaties are:

The Four Geneva Conventions of 1949

 • Geneva Convention I - Protects wounded and sick members of the armed forces in the field.

 • Geneva Convention II - Protects wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea.

 • Geneva Convention III - Relates to prisoners of war.

 • Geneva Convention IV - Protects civilians, including those in occupied territory.

These four conventions form the backbone of IHL. They provide protection for different categories of persons during international armed conflicts between nation-states. The first two conventions protect sick, wounded and shipwrecked military personnel. The third Geneva Convention outlines standards for the humane treatment and rights of prisoners of war (POWs). The fourth critically protects civilians from the impacts of conflict.

Each convention has its own articles specific to protections for that category, but Articles 1, 2, and 3 are common across all four conventions.

Scope of Application (Articles 1 & 2)

Article 1 states that the Geneva Conventions must be applied in any official declaration of war or armed conflict between two or more countries. The Conventions set out protections for people not involved in fighting, such as civilians, aid workers, and medical personnel.

Article 2 says the Conventions also apply to fighting within a country between government forces and rebel groups. This ensures the protections cover civil wars and other internal conflicts, not just wars between nations.

Minimum Standards for All Conflicts (Common Article 3)

Article 3 is identical in all four Geneva Conventions. It establishes basic minimum standards that must be followed in all conflicts, even civil wars. These minimums include:

 • Humane treatment for those not participating in hostilities

 • No torture or degrading treatment

 • Fair trials for anyone facing criminal charges

Article 3 was groundbreaking because it set a baseline of human treatment and a standard for human dignity in conflict to be applicable universally, both in international and internal conflict.

Additional Protocols of 1977

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 brought major improvements in the protection of victims of conflict under International Humanitarian Law. They left some situations untouched, however: the Geneva Conventions covered essentially conflicts between states, and internal conflicts within a state’s border, such as civil wars, were mostly treated superficially. Only Article 3, common to all four conventions, referred to internal conflicts.

Moreover, technological advances in warfare since 1949 highlighted gaps in protections. New weapons and tactics had emerged, including increased air bombings, that caused humanitarian concerns. In addition, this new international discussion on IHL represented an opportunity for countries that were not independent in 1945 to contribute to the development of the Law.

 • Additional Protocol I - Covers international armed conflicts. Further protects civilians and combatants by clarifying the principle of distinction.

 • Additional Protocol II - Relates to non-international armed conflicts specifically and protects victims of these specific battles.

These protocols supplement the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Additional Protocol I strengthened the protections for civilians and combatants in international conflicts. Protocol II extended core IHL protections to internal armed conflicts between states and non-state groups. The Additional Protocols of 1977 thus addressed gaps in international humanitarian law left by the 1949 Geneva Conventions.


Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Treaties

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threaten humanity on a scale unimaginable just a few decades ago. Their use is prohibited under international law, but loopholes remain. A handful of treaties aim to control these technologies by building transparency and trust. Such accords express an ethical stance - that no nation should wield apocalyptic power over others. Yet suspicion lingers, as some nations remain outside these pacts, and cases of poor treaty implementation have occurred. Ultimately, the pacts' success relies on states' good faith, which cannot be guaranteed. But their very existence establishes norms against the spread of mankind's most terrible weapons.

Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Treaties

Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Treaties
Photo: Fastfission / Wikimedia Commons

Definition of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) are weapons that can cause significant harm or damage to large numbers of people, infrastructure, or the environment. Such weapons include nuclear, chemical, radiological and biological weapons. The use of WMDs is prohibited by international law, and several treaties and agreements are in place to control their development, production, and use.

Chemical weapons use toxic agents like nerve gas or mustard gas to poison and kill a high number of individuals. Biological weapons involve bacteria, viruses or toxins which are weaponized to cause deadly disease outbreaks. Radiological weapons combine radioactive material with conventional explosives to disperse dangerous radiation over large areas. Finally, nuclear weapons harness fission or fusion reactions for immense destructive blasts that have become more and more dangerous with the progress of technology. 

Each type of WMD poses unique risks - they can inflict mass casualties, cause long-term health effects, disrupt societies, demand specialised defences, and enable groups or nations with malicious intent to terrorise populations if acquired. Their use is prohibited under international law through treaties like the Hague Code of Conduct, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

International Treaties against Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)

There are several international treaties and agreements in place to control the development, production, and use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

Treaties Targeting Control Ballistic Missiles and Chemical Weapons

The Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC) is a voluntary, non-binding international agreement that seeks to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles capable of delivering WMDs. The HCOC was adopted in 2002 and has been signed by 139 countries. The Code of Conduct establishes guidelines for the responsible behaviour of states in the development, testing, and deployment of ballistic missiles. The Code also aims to promote transparency and confidence-building measures between participating states.

Countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Syria have not yet signed the HCOC. By not signing this agreement, these countries are not subject to the specific obligations and commitments outlined in the code. That means, for one thing, that they do not have to provide information on their ballistic missile programmes. The resulting lack of transparency can lead to regional tensions and concerns about the proliferation of WMDs. These countries may also face diplomatic pressure, scrutiny, or potential sanctions from other signatory states or the international community, as is the case with Iran.

<h6 class="textbox" font-size:14px>Iran began developing ballistic missiles in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. It claims its missile program are for defensive purposes only, but critics allege Iran's missiles could deliver nuclear warheads if Iran develops them in the future, threatening regional security.</h6>

In conjunction with the HCOC, the United Nations (UN) also plays a significant role in disarmament efforts related to weapons of mass destruction. The UN has established several other treaties and conventions aimed at controlling the development, production, and use of WMDs. One of the most important of these treaties is the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. The Convention was adopted in 1993 and has been ratified by 193 countries.

The CWC requires participating states to destroy their existing chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities, and to declare and destroy any chemical weapons they may discover in the future. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is responsible for implementing the Convention and conducting inspections of states' facilities and activities related to chemical weapons.

The production and stockpiling of chemical weapons pose serious dangers to global security - as these weapons can cause indiscriminate and significant harm to people. Nevertheless, the execution of the CWC and other WMD-related treaties is not entirely free of difficulties.

A historical example of these controversies is the false accusations regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) used to justify the Iraq War in 2003. The United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies claimed that Iraq, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, possessed and was actively developing WMDs, including chemical weapons. These claims were used to justify military action against Iraq. It later turned out that the allegation was not only unfounded, but was based on<span class="span"><span id=hint class="box-source">incorrect intelligence.</span><div class="popover">Source:<br><br><div>Porter, G. How U.S. Intelligence Got Iran Wrong. Middle East Policy Council, 2014.</div></div></span>No evidence of possession, production or stockpiling of WMDs was found in Iraq.

The US-led invasion of Iraq has been blamed for causing unnecessary loss of life and infrastructure. The war has had far-reaching effects on both Iraq and the global community, stirring up sectarian tensions in Iraq and a prolonged period of violence and instability in the region.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The UN also established the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957, which is responsible for verifying states' compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology and to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

<h6 class="textbox" font-size:14px>It is important to note that while nuclear weapons are primarily designed for destructive purposes, the energy produced by nuclear reactions can be used for beneficial purposes. Examples of these are nuclear power plants used to generate electricity. Nuclear technologies are also used in medical diagnosis and treatment. The technologies can also be employed in agriculture to develop new, disease-resistant crops through a process called mutation breeding.</h6>

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been signed by 191 countries since 1968. It is one of the most important disarmament treaties in the world. Under the NPT, countries are divided into two categories - nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS). NWS, such as the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, are all committed to nuclear disarmament while pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy. NNWS pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and safeguards on their nuclear activities.

The IAEA monitors Non-Proliferation Treaty compliance by conducting inspections on states' nuclear programs to ensure they are used for peaceful purposes. Central to this monitoring is the requirement of all states that are party to the NPT to demonstrate transparency, openness, and accountability in their nuclear activities. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea own nuclear warheads but are not part of the NPT. These states developed their nuclear weapons programs outside the framework of the NPT. 

Over the years, there have been cases where countries have been suspected or proven to infringe or violate the NPT. For example, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and conducted several nuclear tests, resulting in international condemnation. Similarly, Iran's nuclear programmes have also faced international scrutiny and suspicions of potential violations. 


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8. Turns, D. Ukraine war: what international law says about the Russians fighting against their own country. The Conversation, 2023.

9. Goldman, R. How the ‘laws of war’ apply to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Conversation, 2023.

10. Lubin, A. Can the world stop Israel and Hamas from committing war crimes? 7 questions answered about international law. The Conversation, 2021.

11. Peel, M. Rules of war: international law and the Israel-Hamas conflict. The Financial Times, 2023.

12. Taub, A. What the Laws of War Say About Forced Displacement and ‘Human Shields’. The New York Times, 2023.

13. Taylor, A. Have war crimes been committed in Israel and Gaza?. The Washington Post, 2023.

14. Is Israel acting within the laws of war?. The Economist, 2023.

15. Chotiner, I. The Humanitarian Catastrophe in Gaza. The New Yorker, 2023.

Eductional Resources

Teaching ideas and recommendations

1. What is International Humanitarian Law?. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2022.

2. International Humanitarian Law. European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

3. War & Law. International Committee of the Red Cross.

4. The laws of war in a nutshell. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016.

5. Understanding International Humanitarian Law. Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre.

6. International Humanitarian Law in Theory and Practice. Leiden University.

7. Weapons of Mass Destruction. United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

8. Disarmament. United Nations.

Lectures & Debates

1. Alkaladi, T. What is international humanitarian law?. TEDx Talks, 2020.

2. Principles of international humanitarian law. International Committee of the Red Cross, 2013.

3. Walzer, M. Just & Unjust Wars. Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, 2016.

4. Human Rights & Humanitarian Law - Conflict or Convergence. Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 2010.

5. Burkey, E. Afghanistan And Iraq: Were they 'Just Wars'?. TEDx Talks, 2022.

6. Rushing, E. Humanity in War. International Committee of the Red Cross.

7. In and Around War(s).Geneva Academy.

8. Weber, A. Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Without a Map. TEDx Talks, 2017.

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