International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law


The nature of the relationship between international humanitarian law and international human rights law remains a vexed one. In recent years, human rights lawyers and activists have sought to apply human rights norms to military conduct in international and internal conflicts, and during belligerent occupations. With varying degrees of success, complainants have brought their cases before international tribunals, and to national courts able to apply international human rights standards. This development has occurred largely because forums exist to hear human rights claims, whereas they do not for persons claiming individual redress for violations of international humanitarian law. However, human rights norms have also been seen as more restrictive: as placing greater constraints on States’ freedom to conduct hostilities, preventively detain, and administer occupied territories. It is for this reason that some States have resisted attempts to extend the reach of international human rights law into areas traditionally seen as governed by international humanitarian law.

This chapter argues that principles have now developed to govern the relationship between the two bodies of law. However, their application to different situations remains a work-in-progress and controversies remain.

In particular, despite valient efforts, it remains unclear what what happens in situations where the two bodies of law cannot be read together? There are only few rules of norm-conflict resolution in international law, all of which have limited application in the context of the relationship between international humanitarian law and human rights law. Most inconsistencies between the rules of the two bodies of law are not true conflicts at all, as they do not require States to conduct themselves in different ways. It is simply that international humanitarian law is the more permissive system. In such situations, to argue that the two bodies of law are ‘complementary and mutually reinforcing’ is to do little more than issue a policy prescription.

In reality, in such cases States have to make a choice as regards which rules they wish to comply (a choice which is likely to be a political one) and take the consequences. There are fundamental incompatibilities between international humanitarian law and human rights law, not only as regards discrete rules but in their theoretical bases. Attempts can be made to reconcile them, to avoid conflicts, but they can only be provisional and on a case-by-case basis. The legal tools available cannot always provide an answer. Absent legislation, conflicts will remain. And in a world of States with differing interests and values, the adoption of new rules governing armed conflict and belligerent occupation will be difficult, if not impossible.

One difference between the two bodies of rules, in particular, remains fundamental. Despite developments over past decades which are said to indicate a ‘humanization of humanitarian law’, international humanitarian law, in contrast to human rights law, is not based on an individual rights paradigm. It is this difference, even excluding the differences in the substantive protections accorded individuals under the two bodies of law, which will ensure that individuals continue to bring complaints regarding their treatment in situations of armed conflict before human rights bodies. And even if human rights bodies take the view that States’ human rights obligations in situations of armed conflict are to be interpreted using the yardstick of international humanitarian law, their interpretations of humanitarian law are likely to differ from lawyers advising States’ defence ministries and armed forces, who are likely to continue to be unhappy with such trespasses into what they see as their chasse gardée.


Ce contenu a été mis à jour le 8 juin 2017 à 19 h 22 min.