Armed Conflict
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Overview

Armed conflicts – wars – continue to cause death, displacement and suffering on a massive scale.

Numerous armed conflicts are currently taking place around the world including those involving warring parties within a single state (non-international armed conflicts) and those involving armed forces from two or more states (international armed conflicts). They have harmed millions of people in myriad ways, including by: killing civilians, and leaving survivors maimed, tortured, raped, forcibly displaced, or otherwise seriously abused. By the end of 2019, 79.5 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide due to armed conflict, the largest number ever recorded.

Amnesty International documents and campaigns against violations of international law during armed conflicts, regardless of who the perpetrator is or where the abuse occurs.

Amnesty supports survivors’ demands for justice and accountability from national authorities all the way up to international institutions such as the UN and the International Criminal Court.

Jikany Nuer White Army fighters in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. 10 February, 2014. ©GORAN TOMASEVIC/Reuters/Corbis

Amnesty International’s work

Amnesty International conducts on-site and remote investigations into violations of international law during armed conflicts.

Amnesty International researchers spend thousands of hours each year on the ground in conflict-affected areas, interviewing witnesses and survivors, and gathering information from a wide range of local organizations and officials, including military and law enforcement. Amnesty International’s arms and military advisors identify weapons and munitions and analyse their effects.

Besides reporting directly from conflict zones, Amnesty International employs a variety of cutting-edge remote-sensing techniques – including the analysis of satellite imagery as well as verification of available digital evidence, such as videos and photographs uploaded by witnesses – to monitor armed conflicts around the world.

Together, the testimonial and photographic evidence collected in the field and the data and imagery gathered remotely provide the factual basis for Amnesty International’s global advocacy and campaigns.

Amnesty International conducts high-level advocacy and grassroots campaigns dedicated to protecting civilians in conflict and supporting survivors’ demands for justice, especially through supporting the work of domestic courts, hybrid courts and the ICC.  

What the law says

Armed conflicts are governed principally by international humanitarian law (IHL), which is also known as the laws of war. IHL is a set of rules – either codified in treaties or recognized through custom – that limits the permissible behavior of parties to a conflict.

Serious violations of IHL are war crimes.

The primary aims of IHL are to minimize human suffering and to protect the civilian population and those former combatants who are no longer directly participating in hostilities, such as prisoners of war.

IHL demands that parties to a conflict distinguish between civilians, who are afforded protection, and combatants, who are legitimate targets of attack. Civilians may not be deliberately targeted, although they may still be killed or injured if this happens as part of a proportionate attack on a military target. All parties to the conflict must take measures to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects (such as residential buildings, schools and hospitals), and must not carry out attacks that fail to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or which cause disproportionate harm to civilians.  

Serious violations, including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity (see glossary below), come under a special legal category known as international criminal law (ICL). All states have an obligation to bring those reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law to trial, including through universal jurisdiction, but many states are either unwilling or unable to bring perpetrators to justice. The international community has established ad-hoc tribunals to hold perpetrators to account for such violations in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established to end impunity for crimes under international law. There are 124 States Parties to the ICC’s founding document – the Rome Statute – that are subject to the court’s jurisdiction. The ICC is a court of last resort, used when national justice systems are unable or unwilling to bring perpetrators to justice. Cases can be referred to the ICC by a States Party or by the UN Security Council, which can also refer cases against non-States Parties. The ICC Prosecutor can also decide to open an investigation against a States Party based on external evidence. Some states have established hybrid courts – which are domestic courts with international elements – to hold perpetrators of crimes under international law to account.

The ICC's first conviction, in March 2012, was against Thomas Lubanga, the leader of an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

International human rights law (IHRL) – the body of law that includes customary international law, international human rights treaties and other instruments and confers legal form on inherent human rights – is also applicable during situations of armed conflict.

Amnesty is calling for...

We will not stop until we see:

    • An end to impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide
    • An understanding by parties to armed conflicts that there is no justification for violating the protections afforded to civilians under international law
    • An end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers and their demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration into society 
    • The ground-breaking international Arms Trade Treaty brought to life through national law and practice.

Examples of our work:

    1. In May 2020, Amnesty International released a report documenting Russian and Syrian war crimes against displaced people, and called on the UN Security Council not to cut a vital humanitarian lifeline. The report details 18 cases – the majority in January and February 2020 – where Syrian and/or Russian military forces targeted medical facilities and schools in Idlib, western Aleppo, and north-western Hama governorates. Its publication fed into campaign and advocacy work to press the UN Security Council to renew a resolution allowing cross-border aid into northwest Syria, which finally passed in partial form in July.

    2. Amnesty International has a long track record of documenting serious violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law committed in northeast Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram and the Nigerian military. In May 2020, Amnesty International published a major report on the impact of armed conflict on children in that region. The report documented how children in Borno and Adamawa states have been abused both by Boko Haram and by the Nigerian military. It called for accountability for the atrocities committed by both sides, reforms to the system of arbitrary detention many children are placed in, and better investment in education and psychosocial support, among other care.

    3. In October 2019, Amnesty International discovered evidence of the killing and maiming of civilians as warring parties launched indiscriminate attacks and used a range of inaccurate explosive weapons in populated urban areas around Tripoli, Libya. In the first in-depth field investigation across the frontline since fighting around the capital broke out on 4 April 2019, our team visited 33 air and ground strike sites in Tripoli and surrounding areas. In December 2019, the French government cancelled delivery of six boats to Libya, after legal action from Amnesty International.
    4. In July 2020, the US military admitted that their airstrikes in Somalia had caused civilian casualties. This is only the third case they have conceded, and the first involving a case Amnesty International has documented. The admission was included in their new quarterly CIVCAS report, a measure of accountability that was implemented after the launch of our 2019 report on civilians killed by US airstrikes in Somalia.

Quick glossary

Crimes against humanity: crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population as part of a state or organisational policy during peace or war time. Including, enforced disappearances, murder, enslavement, rape and deportation or forced transfer of population.

Customary international law: International obligations arising from established state practice, which states comply with because they consider themselves bound to do so, as opposed to obligations arising from written international treaties.

Genocide: acts committed with the intent to destroy, completely or partially, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Including killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Impunity: the phrase used when someone can commit an offence (war crimes, murder, crimes against humanity etc.) without punishment.

International criminal law: a body of public international law that establishes individual criminal responsibility and requires criminal accountability for crimes under international law such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL): A set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.

International Human Rights Law: is the body of law that includes customary international law, international human rights treaties and other instruments and confers legal form on inherent human rights.

International armed conflicts: A situation where there is resort to armed force between two or more States, regardless of the reason or the intensity of the conflict.

Non-international armed conflict: A protracted armed confrontation occurring between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of a State. The armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity and the parties involved in the conflict must show a minimum level of organization.

Principle of distinction: All sides must distinguish between military targets and civilians. Any deliberate attack on a civilian or civilian building – such as homes, medical facilities, schools or government buildings – is a war crime (providing the building has not been taken over for military use). If there is any doubt as to whether a target is civilian or military, then it must be presumed to be civilian.

Principle of proportionality: It is prohibited to launch an attack which may be expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and/or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

Universal jurisdiction: It refers to the principle that a national court may, and in some circumstances must, prosecute individuals for crimes under international law – such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture – wherever they happened, based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community or international order itself, which individual States may act to protect. Such an exercise of jurisdiction is known as universal jurisdiction. Amnesty calls on states to ensure that their national courts can exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes under international law, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

War crimes: crimes that violate the laws or customs of war defined by the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Including targeting civilians, murder, torture or other ill-treatment of civilians or prisoners of war.

Key facts

3

One person is forcibly displaced every 3 seconds – roughly the time it takes to read this sentence. That’s 20 people who are newly displaced every minute (UNHCR 2020)

2.86 M

Number of South Sudanese people displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations (UNOCHA 2020)

6.1 M

People internally displaced by violence in Syria (UNOCHA 2019)

24.3 M

Number of people in Yemen that require humanitarian assistance (including food, health care and shelter), of which over 12.2M are children (UNHCR & UNICEF 2020)

79.5 M

Number of people displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations (UNHCR 2020)