International humanitarian law (IHL) aims to regulate the behavior of those involved in armed conflict. Though formally it binds states and armed groups, it also has great practical relevance to humanitarian actors. It provides a set of principles, rules, and norms that govern a myriad of activities, including the conduct of hostilities, detention operations, and humanitarian assistance efforts. As a legal framework, it is relevant to a range of activities in the humanitarian sector – for operations, research, advocacy, communications, etc.

This session looked at examples of practical situations in which an understanding of IHL is critical for those working in the humanitarian field, and addressed the following questions:

  • What is IHL, what is its aim, and why is it important for humanitarian actors to understand?
  • Under what conditions does IHL apply and what are the consequences of its application?
  • What are the main sources of IHL?  Who has rights and obligations under IHL?
  • What is the relationship of IHL to other bodies of law relevant to humanitarian practice, particularly human rights law and refugee law?

This online session, the first in a series of regular online events bringing together humanitarian practitioners for brief expert lectures and open Q&A, provided an overview of IHL with a focus on its significance for humanitarian actors.


Elizabeth Holland Elizabeth Holland Consulting Expert on International Humanitarian Law, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)


Angharad Laing Angharad Laing Executive Director, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)


Session recording (YouTube - faster loading time)

Session recording (Adobe Connect - higher quality)

You can access a recording of the learning session by clicking on the image below. Note that the recordings do not include the Q&A section of the sessions.


Session recording (downloadable audio podcast)

Recommended readings

For participants wishing to prepare in advance for the event, we recommend the following resources:

PHAP members are also recommended to follow the PHAP Online Course on Essentials of International Humanitarian Law, in particular the introductory modules on Public International Law and International Humanitarian Law.


PHAP members had the possibility to undergo a two-part assessment after the session as part of the PHAP Continuous Learning Credits framework.

Part 1: Comprehension check

Part 2: Written reflection

To encourage peer learning among members, selected essay responses have also been also published on the website, if approved by the writer. As a member, you can comment on the responses and read other members' comments.

Read the written reflections

Learning objectives

  • Awareness of the different kinds of actors for whom international humanitarian law (IHL) is a relevant framework
  • Identification of professional contexts and roles that call for familiarity with IHL
  • Basic understanding of the conditions that trigger the application of IHL, and the implications for both civilians and belligerents
  • Familiarity with the basic sources of IHL rules, namely multilateral treaties and customary international law
  • Recognition of the basic rules and principles of the IHL framework
  • Understanding of IHL within the broader context of public international law

Target audience and event access

Humanitarian practitioners as well as others with a professional or general interest in humanitarian action in situations of armed conflict.

The live event on 21 May 2015 was open to the public. The audio and video recordings are now available here, on the event page.

PHAP Credentialing Program

PHAP Credentialing Program

International Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Action

This event will help you prepare for the PHAP Credentialing Program certification in International Legal Frameworks for Humanitarian Action.

The event will address domain 3, in particular, segments 3.1, 3.2, 3.4, and 3.5 of the certification assessment outline. It will also address some aspects of segment 3.7.

Understanding the Humanitarian Ecosystem

This event will also help you prepare for segment 3.5 of the PHAP Credentialing Program certification in Understanding the Humanitarian Ecosystem. See the certification assessment outline

Read more about the PHAP Credentialing Program