In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Humanitarian Law

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Historical Development of IHL
  • Sources of IHL
  • Scope of Application
  • Combatants and Prisoners of War
  • Civilian Direct Participation in Hostilities
  • Implementation, Enforcement, and Accountability in IHL

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


International Law International Humanitarian Law
Emily Crawford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0146


International humanitarian law (IHL, also known as the law of armed conflict, or, in the United States, the law of war) is a branch of public international law that regulates conduct in armed conflict. It is one of the oldest branches of international law, with the first international humanitarian law treaty adopted in 1864, to protect the wounded and sick in armies in the field. Since then, dozens of treaties have been adopted and a wealth of customary law has developed to protect the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of the armed forces; prisoners of war (POWs); and civilians (a subset of IHL sometimes known as the law of Geneva). Comprehensive rules have also developed and been adopted to regulate the conduct of hostilities (sometimes known as the law of The Hague), such as the rules on targeting, or those laws that limit or prohibit the use of certain kinds of weaponry. Above all, IHL has been developed with the dual aims of protecting the vulnerable in situations of armed conflict (persons who do not or no longer take part in the hostilities, known as the hors de combat) while still allowing for the prosecution of the armed conflict. The twin objectives of balancing the interests of humanity with the needs of the military inform all parts of IHL, and can be seen in nearly all of the rules that govern conduct in armed conflicts.


International humanitarian law textbooks can vary in size, depending on what kinds of issues they choose to include or omit; however, most tend to cover what could be considered the core issues of IHL—development and sources of IHL, conduct of hostilities, treatment of persons who do not (or no longer) take direct part in hostilities, and means and methods of warfare. An excellent reference that serves both as an introductory text and as a cases, materials, and bibliographical resource is Sassòli, et al. 2011. Other, more “conventional,” textbooks covering the core of IHL include Dinstein 2016, David 2012, Melzer 2016, and Kalshoven and Zegveld 2011. Blank and Noone 2013 and Solis 2016 also cover the core IHL issues, while favoring a focus on US-related legal issues, such as the role of the Judge Advocate General and rules of engagement, and Fleck 2013 covers additional related issues, such as the law of neutrality and peace operations.

  • Blank, Laurie, and Gregory Noone. International Law and Armed Conflict: Fundamental Principles and Contemporary Challenges in the Law of War. New York: Wolters Kluwer, 2013.

    This is a comprehensive examination of many of the major areas of IHL—historical origins, theoretical foundations, sources, types of armed conflict, occupation, combatants, civilians, targeting, means and methods, implementation, enforcement, and accountability. The book has a notable US focus, as a number of cases and materials used in the book are from US domestic courts or are otherwise US government materials. This text is especially useful for students.

  • Clapham, Andrew, and Paola Gaeta, eds. The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Armed Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Clapham and Gaeta’s work is an impressive collection of chapters on numerous aspects of the law of armed conflict, with comprehensive chapters on the principles and different legal regimes for types of armed conflict, related issues such as human rights in armed conflict, accountability and liability for violations of IHL, and contemporary challenges to IHL, such as the relationship to the law on the use of force, gender and IHL, and forced migration in times of armed conflict.

  • David, Eric. Principes de droit des conflits armés. 5th ed. Brussels: Bruylant, 2012.

    David’s classic work, the winner of the 1994 Paul Reuter Prize for the first edition, is a mammoth tome, covering all aspects of the law of armed conflict, including types of armed conflicts, fundamental principles, and a systematic and exhaustive examination of the laws of The Hague and Geneva. The work also examines the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in armed conflict, and penal prosecution for individuals under the law.

  • Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316389591

    Dinstein’s third edition of The Conduct of Hostilities provides an extensive assessment of the law of armed conflict as it applies in international armed conflicts (non-international armed conflicts are examined in their own volume—see below). Dinstein examines the core of IHL and includes a chapter focusing on some aspects of international criminal law, looking at war crimes, command responsibility, and defenses.

  • Fleck, Dieter, ed. The Handbook of International Humanitarian Law. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    This collection covers the core elements of IHL, while also providing individual chapters on other matters relevant to armed conflict situations, such as the law of neutrality and the law of international peace operations. The work, originally designed to be used as a manual of instruction for the German Armed Forces, benefits greatly from contributions from leading scholars and practitioners, and it strikes a balance between academic analysis of the law and consideration of the practical issues regarding application of IHL.

  • Kalshoven, Frits, and Liesbeth Zegveld. Constraints on the Waging of War: An Introduction to International Humanitarian Law. 4th ed. Geneva, Switzerland: ICRC, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511995231

    Kalshoven and Zegveld’s work takes a somewhat different approach to its explanation and analysis of IHL. The book is structured on an essentially historical, thematic basis, with an analysis of IHL as quantifiable as Geneva Law, Hague Law, or as emanating from the UN (which the authors call the Law of New York), moving to chapters on IHL pre- and post- Additional Protocols. There is also a substantial section to how international and domestic actors shape and influence IHL.

  • Melzer, Nils. International Humanitarian Law: A Comprehensive Introduction. Geneva, Switzerland: ICRC, 2016.

    Melzer’s book provides an excellent introduction to the basics of IHL, covering the scope of application; conduct of hostilities; and special protections for the wounded, sick, shipwrecked, the interned and detained, and civilians in enemy-controlled territory. He also includes a section on implementation and enforcement, and a chapter on the special role of the ICRC. References in the text are predominantly to ICRC publications, such as the ICRC CIHL Study.

  • Sassòli, Marco, Antoine Bouvier, and Anne Quintin. How Does Law Protect in War? Cases, Documents and Teaching Materials on Contemporary Practice in International Humanitarian Law. 3d ed. Geneva, Switzerland: ICRC, 2011.

    This is a very useful teaching and research resource on IHL, available in both print form and online at the ICRC website. The work comprises three volumes; the first volume is closer to a conventional textbook, in that it outlines the substance of IHL, giving comprehensive bibliographic references on each topic, while Volumes 2 and 3 provide cases and materials that illustrate and explain the substantive law detailed in Volume 1.

  • Solis, Gary. The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    Solis provides a detailed analysis of IHL, with a specific focus on operational issues. There are separate, comprehensive chapters on rules of engagement, targeting, command responsibility, and obedience to orders, as well as separate chapters on current challenges for IHL, including security detention, torture in situations of armed conflict, cyber warfare, autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons, and targeted killing. His book is an authoritative and accessible introduction and provides numerous useful case extracts and state practice to illustrate his material.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.