Rule 142. Instruction in International Humanitarian Law within Armed ForcesRule 142. States and parties to the conflict must provide instruction in international humanitarian law to their armed forces.
SummaryState practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable to States in time of peace, as well as to parties to international or non-international armed conflicts. The term armed forces, as used in the formulation of this rule, must be understood in its generic meaning. The practice collected does not indicate that any distinction is made between instruction in international humanitarian law applicable in international armed conflicts or that applicable in non-international armed conflicts.
Instruction within State armed forcesThe duty of States to teach international humanitarian law to their armed forces was first codified in the 1906 and 1929 Geneva Conventions. It was subsequently restated in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, in the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and its Second Protocol, and in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, all of which specify that the obligation to teach international humanitarian law to armed forces applies in time of peace as in time of armed conflict.
Several military manuals lay down the obligation to teach international humanitarian law, some of which state that this obligation applies even in peacetime. The legislation of several States provides that combatants must receive instruction in their duties under international humanitarian law or includes provisions that directly aim to fulfil this requirement by introducing such training programmes. Most of the practice with respect to this rule consists of actual instruction in international humanitarian law provided by many States to their armed forces and of numerous official statements stressing the duty to provide such instruction or pledging to do so. This practice shows that it is not required that all members of the armed forces be totally familiar with every detail of international humanitarian law, but rather that they should know the essential rules of the law that are relevant to their actual functions.
The obligation of States to provide instruction on international humanitarian law to their armed forces has been recalled on numerous occasions by the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights. In addition, States have adopted resolutions reaffirming this obligation at numerous international conferences.
The practice collected seems to show that much of the teaching is primarily or exclusively in the form of written instruction or classroom teaching, which may not be sufficient to ensure effective compliance during the stress of combat. As explained by South Africa’s LOAC Manual, “in the circumstances of combat, soldiers may often not have time to consider the principles of the LOAC before acting. Soldiers must therefore not only know these principles but must be trained so that the proper response to specific situations is second nature”.
Increasing use of international peacekeeping and peace-enforcement troops has given rise to a particular concern that such forces be trained in the application of international humanitarian law before being deployed. Some States have an official policy to this effect. A number of other States have stated that they will undertake such training. As early as 1965, the 20th International Conference of the Red Cross emphasized that it was of “paramount importance” that governments provide adequate instruction in the Geneva Conventions to contingents made available to the United Nations before they leave the country. Pursuant to the UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin on observance by United Nations forces of international humanitarian law issued in 1999, the United Nations undertakes to ensure that the military personnel of such forces are “fully acquainted” with the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. Similarly, in a resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts adopted in 2000, the UN Security Council reiterated the importance of providing appropriate training in international humanitarian law for personnel involved in peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities.
Obligation of commanders to instruct the armed forces under their commandThe obligation of commanders to ensure that members of the armed forces under their command are aware of their obligations under international humanitarian law is set forth in Article 87(2) of Additional Protocol I. This provision seems to be based on the reasoning that the most effective way to ensure compliance with States’ obligation to instruct their armed forces is by making commanders responsible for the instruction of the armed forces under their command.
The obligation of commanders to ensure that members of the armed forces under their command are aware of their obligations under international humanitarian law is set forth in numerous military manuals. These include the manuals of States not, or not at the time, party to Additional Protocol I. Some of these mention this obligation in the same breath as commanders’ responsibility to ensure that their troops respect international humanitarian law. The obligation of commanders to ensure instruction in international humanitarian law is also supported by official statements. Canada’s Commission of Inquiry into the serious violations of international humanitarian law by Canadian peacekeeping troops in Somalia blamed a number of officers for the violations committed by their subordinates because they had not adequately trained the latter in their legal obligations.
Instruction within armed opposition groupsArticle 19 of Additional Protocol II states that the Protocol “shall be disseminated as widely as possible”, and this provision binds armed opposition groups. In the agreements on the application of international humanitarian law concluded in 1991 and 1992, the parties to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia undertook to spread knowledge thereof, especially among combatants, to facilitate dissemination of ICRC appeals urging respect and to distribute ICRC publications.
Colombia’s Basic Military Manual states that the obligation to instruct armed forces also binds armed opposition groups. A resolution on respect for human rights in armed conflicts adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1972 calls upon all parties to armed conflicts “to provide instruction concerning [the international humanitarian rules which are applicable to] their armed forces”.
Armed opposition groups must respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law (see Rule 139), and dissemination is generally seen as an indispensable tool in this respect. In practice, armed opposition groups have frequently allowed the ICRC to disseminate international humanitarian law among their members. The ICRC itself has called upon parties to non-international armed conflicts to ensure dissemination of international humanitarian law to their troops, or to allow or facilitate ICRC efforts to do so.