New Q&A on International Humanitarian Law
July 1, 2014

Both parties to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians. That is an essential principle of humanitarian law.

Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor

(Berlin) – Ukrainian government forces and armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine must respect the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a document published today. “Eastern Ukraine: Questions and Answers about the Laws of War” examines the development of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine into an internal armed conflict and the applicable international law that all the parties must respect.

“Both parties to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians,” said Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “That is an essential principle of humanitarian law.”

Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions, which establishes minimum standards for all parties to a non-international armed conflict, applies to eastern Ukraine. Under common article 3, civilians may never be the deliberate target of attack. Parties to the conflict are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or would cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population.

Common Article 3 provides a number of fundamental protections for civilians and for people who are no longer taking part in hostilities, such as captured combatants, and those who have surrendered or are unable to fight because of wounds or illness. It prohibits violence against them – particularly murder, cruel treatment, and torture – as well as outrages against their personal dignity and degrading or humiliating treatment. It requires parties to a conflict to respect the laws of war regardless of whether the opposing side abides by them. All parties to an armed conflict are held to the same standards, regardless of any disparity in the harm caused by alleged violations.