In which situations and how are they regulated by international humanitarian law? Ans: International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is the main corpus of international law applicable when armed violence reaches the level of armed conflict and nations seek to find solutions or use the laws to justify continuance of the conflict. As stated above, IHL does not specifically refer to terrorism but its provisions prohibit many acts, which if committed in peacetime would commonly be considered a terrorist act.
The main treaties of IHL which have a bearing on terrorism are the Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, supplemented by their two 1977 Additional Protocols. There are many other treaties that deal with aspects of armed conflict and thereby indirectly with terrorism. One such example is the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Several aspects of IHL are relevant to terrorism or acts of terror. First, there is the principle of distinction; that is in armed conflicts the opposing forces should distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Derived from this basic guideline IHL has specific rules against hostage taking, and prohibits direct attacks on civilians. There is also a clear direction against the use of “human shields. ” The second aspect is that of proportionality. The question is how does one apply this principle to terrorism? Or for that matter to an armed conflict; even here the question is whether it is possible to limit oneself to attacking and damaging only military objectives, without any collateral damage.
Despite advances in technology, the experience of the Gulf War in 1991 and the on-going war against terror in Iraq demonstrate that technology is not the panacea. One of the issues in trying to accommodate terrorism within the framework of IHL is that the latter is based on armed conflict occurring between identifiable parties. This is not the case with acts of terror committed by unseen individuals or groups, directly or through proxies. We can merely extend the definition of party to a terrorist organization as one entity that is engaged in using war by indirect means to inflict damage on a state and its society.
Clearly, these laws did not or could not possibly anticipate modern terrorism, even though some of their provisions did mention acts of terror during an armed conflict. But that does not take away from the fact that the international community does have some codified legal statues that can accommodate acts of terror when they amount to waging war. What IHL does is that it provides the underpinning for understanding the complex legal issues that define the parameters of a terrorist act.
This may or may not succeed in generating a consensus on an overarching global law against terrorism, but it at least helps in identifying characteristics. Is terrorism an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict as defined within the scope of IHL? Actually it can be both and individual acts can transcend one boundary to another. Spanning the conflict spectrum, modern terrorism can also be accommodated by understanding the term newer forms of conflict in terms of international law. The war in Iraq is a non-international conflict with international ramifications.