The 10 most important humanitarian treaties

July 03, 2021 Listing 0

Wars and conflicts are one of the defining features of human society and have taken place as far as history goes. Historical evidence provides that wars and conflicts have always been governed by some rule’s which were either mutual or customs based localized in origin. With the advancement of wars and technologies, the brutality that took place on the battlefield increased with the so-called dirty warfare in place; there were no established common rules and order for war. Innocent people, wounded soldiers, people working for a noble cause like doctors and organizations, everyone was engulfed by the horrors of the battlefield.

It was only during the battlefield of Solferino, that Sir Henry Dunant after witnessing the agony of so many wounded soldiers lying untended proposed actions at two levels. Firstly, establishing an organization to assist wounded military personnel: the Red Cross and secondly, to conclude an international covenant to guarantee the protection of the wounded on the battlefield. This led to the passing of the first treaty on the protection of military victims of warfare 1864 in Geneva and thus the genesis of IHL or International Humanitarian Law took place.

When creating this list, we intended to display here those ten important IHL treaties that have the biggest impact in the protection of people during armed conflict and associated treaties which prevent inhuman warfare. The list does not reflect any political opinion of the authors.


1. Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded on the Field of Battle (Red Cross Convention); August 22, 1864

The importance of this convention lies in the fact that it was the very first convention which talked about victims of wars and ameliorated the effects of war on the wounded people. Though this convention was superseded by conventions of July 6, 1906,1 July 27, 1929 and August 12, 1949 as between contracting parties to the later conventions in each instance. This convention led to the establishment of Red Cross society by Sir Henry Dunant, and for the very first time the laws of war were consolidated and agreed to by multiple parties. The Convention was signed at Geneva August 22, 1864 with a total of 10 articles, whose major emphasis was on recognizing the neutrality of ambulance services, medical staff, etc. if they do not belong to a military force and also talked about respectful treatment to all wounded and sick people regardless of their nationality. Furthermore, the 1864 convention was ratified within three years by all the major European powers as well as by many other states. It was amended and extended by the second Geneva Convention in 1906, and its provisions were applied to maritime warfare through the Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907.


2. The four 1949 Geneva Conventions

These conventions are the source of modern IHL and lie at the core of humanitarian law in practice. These conventions have been introduced as the culmination of various previous treaties and their modifications according to the dictates of modern warfare, ensuring greater protection and recognition to all wounded and sick soldiers and citizens that was witnessed during the second world war.

They are inspired by the idea that even in the midst of hostilities, the dignity of the human person shall be respected. The Geneva Conventions protect all those who take no active part in hostilities, namely, civilians and combatants who are wounded, sick, shipwrecked or captured. Protected persons shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and cared for. Each convention focuses on one of these categories of people:

  • Geneva Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field
  • Geneva Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea
  • Geneva Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
  • Geneva Convention (IV) for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War


3. Additional Protocol to the four Geneva convention, 1977

Modern problems require modern solutions, and so was the scenario in the later stages after the second world war and during the Vietnam war. With the changing global and dynamic order, the characteristics of war and conflicts also changed which resulted in an urgent requirement of these protocols to address the changing dimensions of war.

Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions was adopted on 8 June 1977 and entered into force on 7 December 1978. The Protocol does not contain a single formal prohibition concerning a specific weapon, but it contains provisions that explicitly regulate the use of weapons, sets out an obligation to review the legality of ‘new weapons, means or methods of warfare i.e., to say prohibiting weapons and munitions that cause undue sufferings, disproportionate attacks etc. and reaffirms basic rules on the conduct of hostilities that have implications for the legality of the use of weapons.  applies in situations of international armed conflict, including wars of national liberation (Art. 1(4)) and situations of occupation (Art. 1(3)).

Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions was also adopted on 8 June 1977. Additional Protocol II aims to develop and supplement Article 3 common to all four 1949 Geneva Conventions, the only provision of international humanitarian law (IHL) applicable to non-international armed conflicts before the adoption of Protocol II. According to its Article 1, the Protocol applies to armed conflicts which take place ‘in the territory’ of a state party ‘between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement the Protocol. The Protocol does not apply to ‘situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.’ Furthermore, According to Article 13 of the Protocol, ‘The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations.”


4. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC), 1972

This convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1971, annexed to resolution 2826 (XXVI) and consists of 15 articles. The BTWC became the first treaty, currently approaching universality in membership, which prohibited an entire class of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Apart from being a legal instrument of disarmament, it is also the use of prohibited items as means of warfare, hence its overlap with international humanitarian law. It remains a key legal instrument of prevention of proliferation of WMDs and a cornerstone of international security. The treaty prohibits the development, stockpile, production, or transfer of biological agents and toxins of “types and quantities” that have no justification for protective or peaceful use. Furthermore, the treaty bans the development of weapons, equipment, or delivery systems to disseminate such agents or toxins. Should a state possess any agent, toxin, or delivery system for them, they have nine months from entry into force of the treaty to destroy their stockpiles, or divert them for peaceful use. The convention stipulates those states shall cooperate bilaterally or multilaterally to solve compliance issues. States may also submit complaints to the UNSCR should they believe another state is violating the treaty. However, there is no implementation body of the BTWC. There is also a review conference every five years to review the convention’s implementation, and establish confidence-building measures.

In addition, the prohibition on the use of biological weapons is considered customary in both international and non-international armed conflicts, applying to all States and non-State actors, including those who are not a party to the Convention


5. Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, 1954

The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted at The Hague (Netherlands) in 1954 in the wake of massive destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War.  It is the first international treaty with a world-wide vocation focusing exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict. It covers immovable and movable cultural heritage, including monuments of architecture, art or history, archaeological sites, works of art, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest, as well as scientific collections of all kinds regardless of their origin or ownership. The States Parties to the Convention benefit from their mutual commitment, with a view to sparing cultural heritage from consequences of possible armed conflicts.

The protection of cultural property during armed conflict is based on the principle that damage to the cultural property of any people means, in the words of the 1954 Hague Convention, “damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”. Cultural property is protected during war in two ways. Because it is normally civilian in nature, the general provisions of humanitarian law protecting civilian property apply. Specific protection recognizing the cultural heritage of every people is enshrined in the 1954 Hague Convention for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict, which was complemented by the 1977 Additional Protocols, and has become part of customary international law.


6. Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD), 1976

Adopted by Resolution 31/72 of the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1976, the ENMOD Convention, of which the UN Secretary-General is the Depositary, was opened for signature at Geneva on 18 May 1977 and entered into force on 5 October 1978. It consists of ten articles and an Annex concerning the Consultative Committee of Experts. In its Article I the Convention, which is part of disarmament efforts, prohibits the Contracting Parties from engaging in “military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party”. Article 2 specifies what is meant exactly by the term “environmental modification techniques”. The Convention defines environmental modification techniques as changing — through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes — the dynamics, composition or structure of the earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydro-sphere, and atmosphere, or of outer space. Changes in weather or climate patterns, in ocean currents, or in the state of the ozone layer or ionosphere, or an upset in the ecological balance of a region are some of the effects which might result from the use of environmental modification techniques.


7. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CWC), 1980

Also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, is an umbrella convention containing general provisions. Restrictions and prohibitions on particular weapons, such as blinding lasers, incendiary weapons, and mines are contained in protocols annexed to the Convention. The 1980 convention on prohibitions or restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects. CCW) and three initial protocols to the Convention were adopted: Protocol on Non-Detectable Fragments (Protocol I), Protocol on Prohibitions and Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices (Protocol II), Protocol on Prohibitions and Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III) and The Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons (Protocol IV) was adopted on 13 October 1995.

The CCW is a treaty situated at the intersection of international humanitarian law, disarmament, and international peace and security. It aims to prohibit or restrict further the use of certain conventional weapons, not only for immediate humanitarian reasons, but also with a view to contributing to disarmament and peace.


8. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (often referred to as the International Criminal Court Statute or the Rome Statute) is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).[5] It was adopted at a diplomatic conference in Rome, Italy on 17 July 1998 and it entered into force on 1 July 2002. Among other things, the statute establishes the court’s functions, jurisdiction and structure. The Rome Statute established four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Those crimes “shall not be subject to any statute of limitations”. Under the Rome Statute, the ICC can only investigate and prosecute the four core international crimes in situations where states are “unable” or “unwilling” to do so themselves; the jurisdiction of the court is complementary to jurisdictions of domestic courts. The court has jurisdiction over crimes only if they are committed in the territory of a state party or if they are committed by a national of a state party; an exception to this rule is that the ICC may also have jurisdiction over crimes if its jurisdiction is authorized by the United Nations Security Council.


9. International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, 2006

As early as 1980 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights constituted a working group to address the problems arising from missing and disappeared persons. 26 years later, the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 2006. It is the first universally binding treaty that defines enforced disappearance as a human rights violation and prohibits it. The convention entered into force on 23 December 2010. Enforced disappearance is defined as the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law. In order to prohibit enforced disappearance, the convention has four main aspects: combating impunity, prevention, rights of victims and enforcement. The convention places an obligation on states to investigate acts of enforced disappearance and to bring those responsible to justice. In order to reduce the likelihood that people will go missing, it contains other obligations of a preventive measure: people deprived of their liberty have a right to be kept in an official place, to be registered and to communicate with their family and counsel. The convention also recognizes the right of families to know the truth regarding the circumstances and fate of the disappeared person, as well as the right of victims to make reparation for the wrong that was done to them. The convention establishes an international committee of ten independent experts to monitor the implementation of the rights and obligations agreed upon by States.


10. Arms Trade Treaty, 2013

The landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), regulating the international trade in conventional arms from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships – entered into force on 24 December 2014. ATT establishes common standards for the international trade of conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade. The treaty aims to reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, as well as to promote accountability and transparency by state parties concerning transfers of conventional arms. The ATT does not place restrictions on the types or quantities of arms that may be bought, sold, or possessed by states. It also does not impact a state’s domestic gun control laws or other firearm ownership policies. One of the core  principles adopted in ATT is that it prohibits arms transfer authorizations to states if the transfer would violate “obligations under measures adopted by the United Nations Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, in particular arms embargoes” or under other “relevant international obligations” or if the state “has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes.”

Leave reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *