Armed conflicts – wars – continue to cause death, displacement and suffering on a massive scale.

Numerous armed conflicts are currently taking place around the world including those involving warring parties within a single state (non-international armed conflicts) and those involving armed forces from two or more states (international armed conflicts). In 2016, armed conflicts killed more than a hundred thousand people; countless survivors were maimed, tortured, raped, forcibly displaced, or otherwise seriously abused. By the end of 2016, 65 million people around the work remained displaced by armed conflict; the largest number ever recorded. 

Amnesty International documents and campaigns against violations of international law during armed conflicts, regardless of who the perpetrator is or where the abuse occurs.

Amnesty supports survivors’ demands for justice and accountability from national authorities all the way up to international institutions such as the UN and the International Criminal Court.

Jikany Nuer White Army fighters in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. 10 February, 2014. ©GORAN TOMASEVIC/Reuters/Corbis
Jikany Nuer White Army fighters in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. 10 February, 2014. ©GORAN TOMASEVIC/Reuters/Corbis

Amnesty International’s work

Amnesty International conducts on-site and remote investigations into violations of international law during armed conflicts.

Amnesty International researchers spend thousands of hours each year on the ground in conflict-affected areas, interviewing witnesses and survivors, and gathering information from a wide range of local organizations and officials, including military and law enforcement. Amnesty International’s arms and military advisors identify weapons and munitions and analyse their effects.

Besides reporting directly from conflict zones, Amnesty International employs a variety of cutting-edge remote-sensing techniques – including the analysis of satellite imagery as well as verification of available digital evidence, such as videos and photographs uploaded by witnesses – to monitor armed conflicts around the world.

Together, the testimonial and photographic evidence collected in the field and the data and imagery gathered remotely provide the factual basis for Amnesty International’s global advocacy and campaigns.

Amnesty International conducts high-level advocacy and grassroots campaigns dedicated to protecting civilians in conflict and supporting survivors’ demands for justice, especially through supporting the work of domestic courts, hybrid courts and the ICC.  

What the law says

Armed conflicts are governed principally by international humanitarian law (IHL), which is also known as the laws of war. IHL is a set of rules – either codified in treaties or recognized through custom – that limits the permissible behavior of parties to a conflict.

Serious violations of IHL are war crimes.

The primary aims of IHL are to minimize human suffering and to protect the civilian population and those former combatants who are no longer directly participating in hostilities, such as prisoners of war.

IHL demands that parties to a conflict distinguish between civilians, who are afforded protection, and combatants, who are legitimate targets of attack. Civilians may not be deliberately targeted, although they may still be killed or injured if this happens as part of a proportionate attack on a military target. All parties to the conflict must take measures to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects (such as residential buildings, schools and hospitals), and must not carry out attacks that fail to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or which cause disproportionate harm to civilians.  

Serious violations, including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity (see glossary below), come under a special legal category known as international criminal law (ICL). All states have an obligation to bring those reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law to trial, including through universal jurisdiction, but many states are either unwilling or unable to bring perpetrators to justice. The international community has established ad-hoc tribunals to hold perpetrators to account for such violations in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established to end impunity for crimes under international law. There are 124 States Parties to the ICC’s founding document – the Rome Statute – that are subject to the court’s jurisdiction. The ICC is a court of last resort, used when national justice systems are unable or unwilling to bring perpetrators to justice. Cases can be referred to the ICC by a States Party or by the UN Security Council, which can also refer cases against non-States Parties. The ICC Prosecutor can also decide to open an investigation against a States Party based on external evidence. Some states have established hybrid courts – which are domestic courts with international elements – to hold perpetrators of crimes under international law to account.

The ICC’s first conviction, in March 2012, was against Thomas Lubanga, the leader of an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

International human rights law (IHRL) – the body of law that includes customary international law, international human rights treaties and other instruments and confers legal form on inherent human rights – is also applicable during situations of armed conflict.

Amnesty is calling for

We will not stop until we see:

  • An end to impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide
  • An understanding by parties to armed conflicts that there is no justification for violating the protections afforded to civilians under international law
  • An end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers and their demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration into society 
  • The ground-breaking international Arms Trade Treaty brought to life through national law and practice.

Examples of our work:

  • In 2017, Amnesty International released a report documenting how the Syrian government carried out crimes against humanity – including murder, torture, enforced disappearance, and extermination – at Saydnaya Prison in Syria. The report was released after a year-long investigation that relied on interviews with former detainees, family members of detainees, and prison officials and guards who previously worked at Saydnaya. The research increased public awareness of the situation for detainees in Syria and led to enhance commitments by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria to monitor detention in the country.
  • In 2016, using a combination of survivor testimony and satellite imagery, Amnesty International provided credible evidence that Sudanese government forces had carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity – including the use of chemical weapons – in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, Sudan. The report’s findings contributed significantly to the resolutions by the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council mandating that the peacekeeping force in Darfur — UNAMID — bolster military protection and emergency relief in the Jebel Marra area.
  • In 2014, Amnesty International documented numerous massacres of Muslims in the Central African Republic, and the violent expulsion of the remaining Muslim population from the western half of the country. Amnesty International’s research was instrumental in leading the UN Security Council to decide to send a peacekeeping force to the Central African Republic to protect the civilian population.
  • Amnesty International has consistently documented serious violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law committed in north East Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram and the Nigerian military including publishing reports each year since 2012. In 2015 Amnesty published two reports which document war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Boko Haram and the Nigerian military as well, naming nine senior military officials who should be investigated for their possible criminal responsibility. Amnesty International continues to put pressure on both the Nigerian government and the International Criminal Court to ensure that perpetrators of crimes under international law committed in this conflict are brought to justice.

Quick glossary

Crimes against humanity: crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population as part of a state or organisational policy during peace or war time. Including, enforced disappearances, murder, enslavement, rape and deportation or forced transfer of population.

Customary international law: International obligations arising from established state practice, which states comply with because they consider themselves bound to do so, as opposed to obligations arising from written international treaties.

Genocide: acts committed with the intent to destroy, completely or partially, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Including killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Impunity: the phrase used when someone can commit an offence (war crimes, murder, crimes against humanity etc.) without punishment.

International criminal law: a body of public international law that establishes individual criminal responsibility and requires criminal accountability for crimes under international law such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL): A set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.

International Human Rights Law: is the body of law that includes customary international law, international human rights treaties and other instruments and confers legal form on inherent human rights.

International armed conflicts: A situation where there is resort to armed force between two or more States, regardless of the reason or the intensity of the conflict.

Non-international armed conflict: A protracted armed confrontation occurring between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of a State. The armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity and the parties involved in the conflict must show a minimum level of organization.

Principle of distinction: All sides must distinguish between military targets and civilians. Any deliberate attack on a civilian or civilian building – such as homes, medical facilities, schools or government buildings – is a war crime (providing the building has not been taken over for military use). If there is any doubt as to whether a target is civilian or military, then it must be presumed to be civilian.

Principle of proportionality: It is prohibited to launch an attack which may be expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and/or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

Universal jurisdiction: It refers to the principle that a national court may, and in some circumstances must, prosecute individuals for crimes under international law – such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture – wherever they happened, based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community or international order itself, which individual States may act to protect. Such an exercise of jurisdiction is known as universal jurisdiction. Amnesty calls on states to ensure that their national courts can exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes under international law, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

War crimes – crimes that violate the laws or customs of war defined by the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Including targeting civilians, murder, torture or other ill-treatment of civilians or prisoners of war.