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Armed Conflict

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International Humanitarian Law is triggered by the existence of an armed conflict. However, there is no settled definition of the term “armed conflict” - which is used freely in both the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols but is not defined in either.

The Geneva Conventions recognize two distinct categories of armed conflict—international and non-international. The full complement of protections under IHL is applicable only to the first category. Under the Geneva Conventions, an international armed conflict arises between “two or more of the High Contracting Parties.” The full complement of protections provided by IHL applies in cases of international armed conflict. According to the Commentary to the Geneva Conventions, “[i]t makes no difference how long the conflict lasts, or how much slaughter takes place.” Since only States can be High Contracting Parties, an international armed conflict has traditionally been viewed as a conflict between two States. However, as discussed below this assumption is being questioned in the context of the “war on terror.”

The Journal of Peace Research 1993–2014, Appendix 2 defined Armed Conflict as:

An armed conflict is a contested incompatibility which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths.

Types of Armed Conflicts

International humanitarian law distinguishes two types of armed conflicts, namely:

  • International armed conflicts, opposing two or more States, and
  • Non-international armed conflicts, between governmental forces and non-governmental armed groups, or between such groups only

Key Topics on Armed Conflict

  • Basic Principles of the Law of Armed Conflict
  • Applicability of the Law of Armed Conflict
  • Armed Forces of the Belligerents
  • The Conduct of Hostilities
  • Weapons
  • Wounded, Sick, and Dead and Medical Services
  • Prisoners of War
  • Protection of Civilians in the Hands of a Party to the Conflict
  • Negotiations Between Belligerents
  • Occupied Territory
  • Air Operations
  • Maritime Warfare
  • Application of the Law of Armed Conflict During Peace Support Operations
  • Internal Armed Conflict
  • Enforcement of the Law of Armed Conflict


  • Geneva Convention I 1949: Annexes 451
  • Geneva Convention II 1949: Annex 455
  • Geneva Convention III 1949: Annexes 457
  • Geneva Convention IV 1949: Annexes 471
  • Additional Protocol I 1977: Annexes 477
  • Hague Cultural Property Convention 1954, Article 16 487
  • Annex to the Amended Mines Protocol