Using law to protect civilians

Developing the practice of civilian rights

The high civilian death toll in today’s conflicts appears to demonstrate how little the international legal order has to offer to civilians at risk. Yet both international humanitarian law (IHL) and the law of human rights establish a series of rights that, at least in theory, are intended to protect civilians. But which law or laws apply in a given situation and what are the obstacles to their implementation? How can the law assist civilians injured by new methods of warfare, such as drone strikes, or targeted by new forms of military organisation, such as transnational armed groups? How can practical obstacles be overcome that currently prevent civilians from claiming their rights?

While monitoring and documenting violations is an essential step, it is not by itself enough to deliver real protection for civilian rights.

Protecting civilian rights in the Grey Zone

A recent conference of states convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross referred to an institutional vacuum in the area of international humanitarian law implementation. Can the implementation gap be filled by the growing but sometimes controversial use of human rights courts to remedy violations of the laws of armed conflict, or by proposals for new instruments or mechanisms of civilian legal protection?

The Grey Zone: Civilian protection between human rights and the laws of war is a major legal study edited by Ceasefire pulling together contributions from 20 distinguished international jurists and leading litigators on key legal questions in civilian rights in the grey zone between human rights and the laws of war. These include state obligations to investigate civilian casualties, defining non-combatants, legal safeguards on killing and detention, an assessment of current remedies and an analysis of proposals for new mechanisms of civilian legal protection. Published by Hart/ Bloomsbury, more information is available here.

Themes in The Grey Zone are introduced in a guest post on the Justice in Conflict blog: Is International Law fit for purpose to protect civilians?

The greatest gap is in the implementation of the Geneva Conventions and other IHL treaties. Ceasefire is working to support civilian rights under IHL and to expand understanding of legal protections in practice. This includes legal limitations on the conduct of military sieges, one of the most destructive forms of warfare practised today.

One first step in the implementation of legal protection for civilians is the proper investigation of violations. Here Ceasefire’s Director writes for the blog of the European Journal of International Law on the Duty to Investigate Civilian Deaths in Armed Conflict.

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