Qualifying – or classifying – a situation as an international armed conflict (IAC) or non-international armed conflict (NIAC) is an important and often necessary step when determining whether the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) apply in a specific context. The application of IAC or NIAC rules to a given scenario is of significant consequence; for instance, under IHL the standards governing the use of lethal force in an IAC or NIAC are far more permissive than those that apply during peacetime. The basic distinction between IACs and NIACs is reflected in both treaty and customary law, and dictates which rules apply to a particular situation. For instance, the treaty rules regulating conduct of hostilities and the treaty rules addressing humanitarian access differ in an IAC as compared to a NIAC.

This session provided an introduction to conducting a qualification analysis under IHL. It addressed such questions as:

  • What is the value or utility of such an exercise?
  • Who undertakes such an exercise and why? Is there a final arbiter of such an analysis?
  • What are the definitions of an IAC and a NIAC? Where does occupation fit in?
  • When does a situation of violence become an IAC or NIAC?
  • What are some of the challenges in qualifying a situation as an armed conflict?

These issues and challenges were picked up in the next session when two case studies were analyzed, with a focus on the technicalities of qualifying a situation and the relevance of such an exercise to humanitarian practitioners.

Session description

Qualifying the armed conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine is an important but potentially complicated exercise. Determining whether a situation encompasses an international armed conflict (including occupation), non-international armed conflict, or possibly both simultaneously, is valuable for a number of reasons. For instance, the rules related to conduct of hostilities, detention and humanitarian access vary depending on whether a situation is an international armed conflict (including occupation) or non-international armed conflict. Though the fundamental principles of IHL apply to the categories, the specific rules applicable to each vary. As a result, it is important for actors operating in a conflict setting to have a clear understanding of the qualification of the context so that they are able to engage in an informed and credible discussion with parties to the conflict, key stakeholders and other interested parties. It is a question that a variety of actors will address – states, militaries, courts and tribunals, international organizations and humanitarian NGOs. Possessing an understanding of the qualification of a situation contributes to establishing a shared basis for discussion and engagement as to the rules and principles that regulate rights and responsibilities during armed conflict.

To undertake a qualification assessment it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the factual context as well as the relevant legal framework. This session will provide a brief overview of the factual predicate for both Syria and the Ukraine, which will inform a legal analysis of each context. Syria and the Ukraine present opportunities to engage on a number of challenging elements related to qualification, including the following questions:

  • When does a situation become an international or non-international armed conflict? What was the threshold for such a determination in Syria and the Ukraine?
  • When does a situation become an occupation? What does it mean for such a qualification if there are ongoing, but intermittent, hostilities?
  • When does a situation encompass both an international and non-international armed conflict? What are the practical consequences of such a determination?
  • When a situation evolves quickly, who makes qualification determinations, and what is the utility of such an exercise?


Dr. Noëlle Quénivet Dr. Noëlle Quénivet is an Associate Professor in International Law at the Faculty of Business and Law of the University of the West of England (United Kingdom). Prior to that she worked as Researcher at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (Germany) where she taught on the MA in Humanitarian Assistance (NOHA) and the MA in Human Rights and Democratisation. She has published several articles relating to international humanitarian law, authored Sexual Offences in Armed Conflict in International Law (2006 winner of the Francis Lieber Honorable Mention Award) and co-edited two books, one on the relationship between international humanitarian law and human rights law and another on international law in armed conflict. Her research focuses on International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, Post-Conflict Reconstruction, and Gender and Children in Armed Conflict. She has recently published two articles examining the laws relating to the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts and is pursuing further research in that field.


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


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Questions and answers

As we are not always able to answer all participant questions during the live session, PHAP's expert network provides additional responses in writing after the end of the session. Please note that access to certain responses are restricted to PHAP members.

Recommended readings

For participants wishing to read more, we recommend the following sources:

Learning objectives

  • Familiarity with the binary framework of IAC and NIAC.
  • Awareness of the relevance and utility of conducting a qualification analysis
  • Understanding of the definition of IAC and NIAC, and the consequences for various actors (i.e. military, humanitarian, etc.)
  • Familiarity with the threshold indicia relevant to IAC and NIAC
  • Ability to walk through a qualification analysis

Target audience

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


PHAP members have 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 will are 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

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.

In particular, the event will address segment 3.4 of the certification assessment outline.

Read more about the PHAP Credentialing Program