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The use of force in international law
The use of force in international law

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2.2 The main principles of IHL

IHL is based on three main principles:

  1. proportionality
  2. necessity
  3. distinction.

You became familiar with the first two principles in Section 1. The third main principle of IHL relates to the distinction between civilian objects and military objectives. IHL requires all parties to a conflict to balance military necessity with humanitarian principles, aimed at limiting suffering in warfare. The application of the principle of distinction means that only military objectives can be subjected to an armed attack. This rule is codified in Articles 48 and 52(2) of AP II, to which no reservations have been made. It is a very important principle as it has implications for the applicable system of protection explained in Table 1.

Table 1 The system of protection of civilians and combatants under IHL
do not take part in hostilities do take part in hostilities
do not have a right to take part in hostilities (have the right to be respected) have the right to take part in hostilities and have the obligation to observe the rules of IHL
may be punished for participation in hostilities may not be punished for the mere participation in hostilities (but will be punished for committing violations under IHL)
generally: are protected because they DO NOT participate in hostilities are protected WHEN they no longer participate in hostilities
  • protected as civilians in the hands of the enemy
  • protected against attacks and effects of hostilities
  • protected if they have fallen into the power of the enemy
  • if wounded, sick or shipwrecked
  • protected against some means and methods of warfare, even when fighting

Activity 3

Read the following articles of Geneva Convention III 1949 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , which sets out the rules regulating the treatment of prisoners of war: 2–5, 12–18, 22–23, 25–30, 33–34, 41, 49–50, 52, 71, 78.

Bearing in mind what you've learned so far about IHL, try to apply your knowledge in a practical case scenario by role playing in an online game, where you will become a commander of a prisoner of war camp. Your role will be to run the camp according to the principles of IHL. You will receive feedback on the decisions you have made as you progress through the stages of the game. The game is called ‘Prisoners of war’. 


This activity is designed not only to test your understanding of the rules of IHL, but also your ability to apply it to particular situations. Importantly, the exercise highlights one of the main challenges to the operation of the rules of IHL, namely their implementation during armed conflict by the actors involved. You should get a taste of the complexity of the decisions which are made in wartime.