As the set of norms primarily meant to apply during armed conflicts, international humanitarian law (IHL) – also known as the law of armed conflict – is a key framework for everyone operating in such situations, even those whose work is not to deal with legal issues.
Unsurprisingly, then, a wide range of terms, such as "indiscriminate and disproportionate attack," "military objective," "civilians," and "military necessity," commonly used by humanitarian practitioners and others working in armed conflict situations, actually carry very specific legal meaning under IHL. However, when outside a formal legal setting, those words may be used for different purposes by multiple actors, leading to odd and potentially damaging distortions, such as when speaking of "innocent civilians."
Of course, not all actors have a mandate to refer to and apply IHL norms. And depending on the specific context, it is not even necessarily always advisable to use clear legal terms if they might undermine a negotiating position. However, be it deliberate or unintentional, the misuse of the language of IHL is widespread, and this can potentially undermine the effectiveness of its protective norms.
Much of the misuse of IHL terms seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the core logic of this set of norms, which can be puzzling and uncomfortable for many actors, and rightly so. In strict IHL terms, under certain conditions, a child can be a lawful target of attack and a hospital can also lose its protected status.
On 9 February, Dr Theo Boutruche explored in this webinar some of the pitfalls behind the misconceptions and misuses of certain IHL terms and discuss the potential consequences for humanitarian work.