Implications of Applying IHL to Low-Intensity Conflict: From Internal Disturbance to Armed Conflict

Humanitarian actors increasingly find themselves in contexts where the application of the norms and concepts of international humanitarian law (IHL) is contested. In particular, those working in possible situations of non-international armed conflict are often faced with the fact that it can be far from clear whether or not there exists a situation of armed conflict, which is required for the application of IHL. Especially in cases of armed insurgencies, spill-over conflicts, riots, urban violence, or violence in fragile states, the application of IHL may be disputed, resulting in a lack of clarity as to the applicable norms, and the obligations parties have with regard to the use of lethal force, the protection of civilians, detention practices, and other issues.

When there is an absence of a clear pronouncement from the parties themselves, governments, courts, or other leading actors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), other humanitarian actors may be unsure whether or not they are in fact operating in a conflict paradigm. Moreover, in such cases, humanitarian actors face a strategic choice as to whether to advocate for the application of IHL, from a practical, pragmatic or protection point of view. After all, other legal frameworks such as international human rights law may be more protective of civilians, in particular setting higher protection standards for protection of life and basis for detention.

The qualification of armed violence, and the resulting potential application of IHL, thus raise a number of important questions for humanitarian actors, from both a factual, legal and policy perspective. In conversations with key experts and practitioners, this podcast will examine legal and policy considerations with regards to ‘low level’ armed violence and the strategic importance of application or non application of IHL in such contexts.

September, 2016