International humanitarian law and peace processes


Is there evidence that the degree of respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) during an armed conflict affects peace processes (improves the prospects for peace-making)?


There is limited research and no empirical evidence exploring links between the degree to which IHL is respected (or ignored) and the success (or failure) of peace processes.  The literature focuses on various related issues, including negotiating with non-state armed groups, the question of why conflict groups may comply with international humanitarian norms, and the need to address violations of IHL and human rights (e.g. through accountability initiatives). This report looks at issues of compliance and engagement with humanitarian norms – and any general links, cited in the literature and by experts, to peace processes.

Key findings:

  • Armed actors are more likely to adhere to international humanitarian norms if it aligns with their self-interest and political aims. Groups seeking to gain legitimacy and to improve their reputation domestically and internationally are likely to be more motivated to demonstrate respect for IHL. In addition, they may expect that this will prompt reciprocity on the part of other conflict actors.
  • It is unclear whether commitment to respect of IHL actually amounts to changes in behaviour.  Current research does not extend beyond the focus on motivations to explore whether compliance and reciprocal commitments, and potential improvements in legitimacy, improve prospects for peace-making.
  • There is a lack of empirical evidence that shows adherence to IHL could help to facilitate peace efforts and the chance of lasting peace.
  • Engagement on humanitarian issues is both an important end in itself and offers a possible entry point that can help to open up dialogue between conflict groups. For example, discussions on land mine bans in Colombia. The release of political prisoners can also be a critical positive development in peace processes (e.g. Nelson Mandela in South Africa).


Suggested citation

Haider, H. (2016). International humanitarian law and peace processes (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1399). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.