Origin of International Humanitarian Law


International humanitarian laws are prescribed laws that govern the resort to force which is known by the Latin principle of jus ad Bellum.  International law also seeks to regulate the conduct of hostilities known under the Latin principle of just in Bello. In other words, the jus ad bellum is the law relating to the criteria which must be satisfied before engaging in war legally. So, one can describe the jus ad bellum as the legal requirements which sees states entering into armed conflict, and the jus in bello is the set of legal principles which regulate the conduct of hostilities during an armed conflict.

The principle covers for instance the treatment of prisoners of war, civilians in occupied territory the wounded, and the sick personnel, prohibited methods and tactics of warfare, and human rights in situations of conflict.

International humanitarian law (IHL) seeks to protect people who are not taking part in hostilities (such as civilians and medical personnel) and those who are no longer partaking in a conflict (such as wounded, sick or captured soldiers). It governs the conduct of armed conflicts and seeks to limit the effects of armed conflicts on civilians and other non-combatants.

IHL attempts to balance the need for military operations with the protection of civilians and other non-combatants. The rules are established by treaty and applicable to all states and non-state actors, including armed groups. The principles of IHL are designed to alleviate the suffering of people affected by armed conflict and promote respect for human dignity, protection of civilians, and the prevention of unnecessary suffering. The four (4) Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their three (3) additional protocols are the primary legal instruments of IHL.


The development of international humanitarian law as we understand it today can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when countries began to recognize the need for more comprehensive and uniform rules to govern the conduct of warfare. This was spurred in part by the greater destructive power of modern weapons and the increasing civilian casualties of armed conflicts. This made it clear that traditional customs and practices were no longer sufficient to protect non-combatants.

The Geneva Conventions of 1864

The development of modern international humanitarian law is credited to the efforts of 19th century Swiss businessman Henry Dunant. In 1859, Dunant witnessed the aftermath of a bloody battle between French and Austrian armies in Solferino, Italy. The departing armies left a battlefield littered with wounded and dying men. Despite Dunant’s valiant efforts to mobilize aid for the soldiers, thousands died. In “A Memory of Solferino,” his book about the experience, Dunant proposed that trained volunteer relief groups be granted protection during war in order to care for the wounded.

A group known as the Committee of Five, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross, formed in Geneva in 1863 to act on Dunant’s suggestion. Dunant also suggested a formal agreement between nations “for the relief of the wounded”. The Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions were born when Henry Dunant witnessed the devastating consequences of war at a battlefield in Italy. In the aftermath of that battle, Dunant argued successfully for the creation of a civilian relief corps to respond to human suffering during conflict, and for rules to set limits on how war is waged.

St Petersburg, 1868: First International Agreement Prohibiting the Use of Certain Weapons

In 1868, officials from seventeen (17) states met in St. petersburg, the then capital of Imperial Russia in an International Military Commission. After, the meeting the St peterburg declaration Renouncing the use, in time of war, of explosive projectiles under 400 Grams Weight was made. Despite the fact that it was termed a  ‘Declaration’, it had a full force of law for its seventeen States Parties.

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 represented another important step forward in the development of international humanitarian law. These agreements were designed to address the growing problem of civilian casualties in warfare, and established a range of rules and principles governing the conduct of warfare, including restrictions on the use of certain types of weapons, protections for non-combatants, and requirements for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. The Hague Conventions also established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was intended to resolve disputes between states peacefully and prevent the outbreak of armed conflict.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949

The most significant development in the history of international humanitarian law came in the aftermath of World War II, which had seen unprecedented levels of destruction and civilian casualties. In response, the 1949 Geneva Conventions were adopted, which established a comprehensive set of rules and principles governing the conduct of armed conflict, including protections for civilians and prisoners of war, restrictions on the use of certain weapons, and requirements for the humane treatment of those who fall into the hands of the enemy.


International humanitarian law has come a long way since its humble origins in the customs and traditions of warfare. Today, it is a vital part of the international legal system, designed to ensure that even in the midst of armed conflict, the basic rights and dignity of all individuals are respected and protected. Although there are still many challenges and obstacles to overcome, the ongoing evolution of international humanitarian law represents an important step forward in the pursuit of peace, justice, and human rights around the world.

Shey Julius Nkuh

A Conflict Resolution graduate currently persuing Master's Degree in the University of Buea, Cameroon. Believes in the role of the media as an educational, informational and entertainment tool . He is also passionate about creating awareness to societal crisis. For this reason, has dedicated most of his time to charity. He derives pleasure in blogging and creating contents for you.

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