Armed Conflict

  • Issue

Overview

Where wars erupt, suffering and hardship invariably follow. Conflict isn’t just about death, it is a breeding ground for mass human rights violations, including torture, disappearances and imprisonment without charge.

Armed conflicts can be triggered by issues including identity, ethnicity, religion or competition for resources.

Women and children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict - they make up 80% of all refugees and displaced people. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are routinely committed during conflict.

Amnesty does not take sides in conflicts. We document and campaign against human rights abuses and violations of international law, no matter who commits them, or where. And, we support the survivors to demand justice.

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

The problem

Caught in the crossfire

In conflicts across the globe, governments and armed groups routinely attack civilians.

Powerful nations have shown a sinister willingness to manipulate international institutions or apply double standards. States supply arms to forces known to commit mass abuses and then shield those responsible when abuses are committed. Continuing violence feeds on unresolved grievances arising from years of destructive conflict and the failure to hold those responsible to account.

Protecting civilians

As strange as it sounds, even in war there are rules that all sides must obey. International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the laws of war, has been developed in order to protect civilians from the horrific effects of conflict.

IHL is a set of rules that limit how military operations can be carried out. Crucially, IHL demands that fighters on all sides spare civilians and those who are no longer engaged, such as soldiers who have been wounded or have surrendered. Serious violations of these rules, such as directly attacking civilians, are war crimes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), was established in 2002 to prosecute people accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. In former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone those who have ordered or committed these crimes have been brought to justice. The ICC's first conviction, in March 2012, was against Thomas Lubanga the leader of an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, partly for using children in conflict.

Amnesty is calling for

We will not stop until we see

• An end to impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
• An understanding by state forces and armed groups that targeting civilians can never be justified.
• An end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers - their demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
• The ground-breaking international Arms Trade Treaty brought to life through national law and practice.

The issue in detail

The rules…

International humanitarian law is based on three key principles.

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.
Proportionality. Civilian causalities and damage to civilian buildings must not be excessive in relation to the expected military gain.
Precaution. All sides must take precautions to protect civilians. These include…

- Taking into account the timing of an attack to minimise civilian casualties.
- Making sure that whenever possible civilians are given advance warning of an attack.
- Stopping an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or the impact on civilians is disproportionate.
- If munitions, such as artillery or mortars, cannot be precisely aimed, they should not be used on a military target in a densely populated residential area.
- Military buildings and equipment, such as munition stores, should not be situated in densely populated areas.

Quick glossary

Crimes against humanity - crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilians during peace or war time. Including, enforced disappearances, killings, enslavement, deportation and mass, systematic rape.

Genocide - acts committed with the intent to destroy, completely or partially, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Impunity - the phrase used when someone can commit an offence (intimidation, attacks, murder etc.) without punishment.

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

Key facts

50M

For the first time since the Second World War, more than 50 million people are forcibly displaced. Most because of armed conflict. (UNHCR, 2014)

12.2M

By the end of 2014, 12.2 million Syrians - more than half the population - were dependent on humanitarian assistance. (UNOCHA)