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close this bookAction by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Event of Breaches of International Humanitarian Law (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1981, 9 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Action taken by the ICRC on its own initiative
View the document2. Reception and transmission of complaints
View the document3. Requests for inquiries
View the document4. Requests to take note of violations


Supervision remains one of the most difficult problems in public international law and particularly in international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts.¹ Despite the system provided for under the Geneva Conventions and their additional Protocols and in default of an authority superior to States, grave violations are frequently committed without punishment or even prosecution.

1By “international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts” the ICRC means international rules, established by treaties or custom, which are specifically intended to solve humanitarian problems directly arising from international or non-international armed conflicts and which, for humanitarian reasons, limit the right of parties to a conflict to use the methods and means of warfare of their choice or protect persons and property that are, or may be, affected by conflict. The expression “international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts” is often abbreviated to “international humanitarian law” or “humanitarian law”.

The role which the International Committee of the Red Cross has to play in the event of such violations is delicate.

Firstly, the ICRC may take action on its own initiative, especially when its delegates are directly confronted with violations.

Secondly, the ICRC often receives complaints, and is generally expected to transmit them or to approach the authorities responsible, or to publicly state an opinion concerning the alleged violations.

Thirdly, the ICRC is sometimes asked to conduct an investigation to establish the truth of an alleged breach, or simply to record that violations have been committed.

In all three cases the attitude to be adopted by the ICRC is determined essentially by one criterion, namely the interest of the victims whom its mandate requires it to protect and assist. Its specific role as a neutral intermediary between parties to a conflict and its duty to treat all the victims of armed conflicts without discrimination require the ICRC, when faced with actual or alleged violations of international humanitarian law, to react only after having carefully weighed all the consequences that its reaction may entail for the victims.

It must, moreover, be remembered that it is the States which are responsible for the respect of international law and, more particularly, of the treaties binding them. The Geneva Conventions even expressly require States not only to respect them but to ensure respect for them.1 The ICRC is not superior to the contracting parties and cannot assume a judicial power which has not been given to it and which, moreover, it has never wished to possess.

1See article I common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and article I, para. 1 of their additional Protocol I.

The foregoing considerations and also the sum of experience acquired led the ICRC to establish a number of rules for its own guidance. They are often ill-known outside the institution, and the purpose of this document is to enable readers to gain a better understanding of them.

This document does not deal, however, with the position adopted by the ICRC and its delegates when faced with violations of international law or humanitarian principles to the detriment of detainees whom they have to visit as part of the activities which the ICRC’s mandate requires it to carry out in the event of internal disturbances or tensions within a given State. Since this type of activity is based on ad hoc agreements with governments, the problem has been tackled from a different angle and the ICRC follows specific guidelines in such situations.