What are human rights? What are international human rights and humanitarian law? And what is the difference between the two? What does it mean for me? This article will tackle such questions.

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A first – and main – distinction between human rights and humanitarian law is:

human rights apply both in peace and war time
humanitarian law applies only in war time (armed conflict).

I will give a little more detail below, first on human rights – and international human rights law; then on international humanitarian law.

1. What are Human Rights?

Human rights (HR) are rights you have for the sole reason you are a human being. No one gives them to you; you just have them no matter what. One of the main human rights is the right to live. But I’m sure you also heard of the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments, or to torture.

While these rights are imprescriptible and inalienable in principle, in reality there is still much progress to be made to ensure their respect and the accountability of those committing human rights abuses.

In that aim, has emerged an international human rights law which codifies such human rights and which goal is to ensure their respect.

The most well-known instrument is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly through resolution 217 A, which lists 30 rights, including:

Civil Rights, article 1-5; 15:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Article 1
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Article 3
Everyone has the right to a nationality. Article 15

Rights linked to the due process of law, article 6-11:

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. Article 7
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law. Article 8

Privacy and freedom of movement, article 12-14:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. Article 12
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Article 14

Non-discrimination and social, economic and cultural rights, article 16-30:

Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. Article 17
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Article 18
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Article 19
Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Article 23
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. Article 24
Everyone has the right to education. Article 26
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Article 27

United Nations Photo

The 1948 UDHR, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its two Optional Protocols, and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) form what we call the International Bill of Human Rights.

The adoption of such instruments, by States, bounds them to respect human rights.

The UN created monitoring mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Committee (for the respect of the ICCPR), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (for the ICESCR), but also mandates of special rapporteurs on specific topics, such as torture and arbitrary detention.

Human rights instruments exist at the regional level (such as the European Convention of Human Rights) and at the national level (for example included in the preamble of the French Constitution) as well.

Check out this article by the Council of Europe to learn more about the evolution of human rights and the different generations of rights!

2. What is International Humanitarian Law?

International humanitarian law (IHL) regulates war; prescribing rules to be followed by warring countries. Its aim is to limit the effect of the war. Thus, while human rights law aims at protecting civilians from abuses, humanitarian law aims at giving obligations to warring parties, applying between them.

IHL is part of international law, and is applicable only in situations of armed conflict. Mostly customary, IHL has been codified in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and their three 1977 Protocols:

The first Geneva Convention protects wounded and sick soldiers on land during war.
The second Geneva Convention protects wounded, sick and shipwrecked military personnel at sea during war.
The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war.
The fourth Geneva Convention affords protection to civilians, including in occupied territory.

The additional protocols add to all four conventions:
Additional Protocol I relates to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts.
Additional Protocol II relates to the protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts.
Additional Protocol III relates to the adoption of an additional distinctive emblem.

There is also an important work done by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in identifying customary humanitarian law and interpreting it. You can check out the Red Cross’ factsheet on IHL here.

Rules and principles

The main rule of IHL is that sick or wounded members of armed forces should always be protected and treated humanely. IHL also states four core principles:

  • The principle of military necessity
    Only military objectives can be attacked. Any damage which does not bring a military advantage must be prohibited, since the objective should be to weaken the armed forces of the enemy.
  • The principle of proportionality
    Even military objectives may not be subject to unlimited and uncontrolled attack, as injury and damage disproportionate to military advantage are also prohibited.
  • Principle of discrimination or distinction
    Warring parties must always distinguish between combatants, civilian objects and military objectives. They must only attack military objectives and armed forces.
  • Principle of humanity
    Warring parties must not cause unnecessary suffering, even to members of armed forces and even in cases not expressly provided for in IHL.

Application of IHL

  • It applies between the warring states even if human rights law and other international instruments do not apply – meaning the states do not have to be party to a specific instrument for IHL to apply.
  • IHL starts being applicable at the beginning of the armed conflict but does not stop at the end of the conflict – it will stop only when the territory occupied is no longer occupied and when all prisoners, if any, are set free.
  • It applies in the whole territory of the warring state, even if the armed conflict takes place in only a small part of its territory.

I hope this article helped you understand the difference between human rights law and humanitarian law as well as their objectives! You can always reach out through the contact form if you have any questions.