Types of Armed Conflict

Types of Armed Conflict

There are three types of conflicts that are recognized by International Humanitarian Law: International Armed Conflict, Internationalized Armed Conflict, and Non-International Armed Conflict.

International Armed Conflict

According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, common article 2 states that “all cases of declared war or of any armed conflict that may arise between two or more high contracting parties, even if the state of war is not recognized, the convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a high contracting party even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance ” (Geneva Convention, 1949, common art . 2).

This means that the occurrence of international armed conflict is clear , that is , it would be a conflict between the legal armed forces of two different states. A good example would be the North Korean – South Korean war of 1950.

The basic requirement for an IAC is that there must be an armed conflict between two or more states. Aside from occupation, where there needs to be no armed resistance, the level of violence needed between two states to have a situation of armed conflict is generally undefined but it is generally accepted that even “two shots” fired across a border could lead to the application of IHL.

It remains a factual assessment and a question of relevance. For example, if during a training exercise an army patrol accidently went into the territory of another state and returned without any engagement with the other state, IHL would have no role to play. However if that mistake led to an exchange of fire between the two armed forces, the applicable rules of IHL would apply.

The rules covering international armed conflicts are more extensive and more detailed than those covering internal armed conflicts, given that they include those set out in The Hague Conventions of 1907, the four Geneva Conventions and the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1977.

Occupation is a concept that only applies in the context of an IAC. Occupation is not defined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions. However the 1907 Hague Convention IV sets out the following definition:

“Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised”

Internationalized Armed Conflict

The second armed conflict recognized by international humanitarian law is a new phenomenon known as ‘ an internationalized armed conflict’. The situation of an internationalized armed conflict can occur when a war occurs between two different factions fighting internally but supported by two different states[1].

The most visible example of an internationalized armed conflict was the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998 when the forces from Rwanda, Angola , Zimbabwe and Uganda intervened to support various groups in the DRC[2].

Non International Armed Conflicts

The majority of today’s armed conflicts are non-international armed conflicts. The meaning and nature of non-international armed conflicts receives its definition in Article 3[3], where it is defined as armed conflict that occurs within the confines of a state or nation and does not go beyond the boundaries of the state. Non-international armed conflicts are those restricted to the territory of a single state, involving either regular armed forces fighting groups of armed dissidents or armed groups fighting each other.

However, case law, especially that at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has clarified the elements, allowing for the assertion that a non-international armed conflict exists when there is a situation of” protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a State.

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Hence, there are two keys elements needed for a NIAC: protracted armed violence, and the involvement of an organised armed group. The following are indicative of the level of protraction and intensity of violence needed for a NIAC:

The number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the type of weapons and other military equipment used; the number and calibre of munitions fired; the number of persons and type of forces partaking in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing combat zones; the involvement of the UN Security Council may also be a reflection of the intensity of a conflict.

The following factors would be indicative of the level of organization of an armed group:

The existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the existence of a headquarters; the ability to gain access to weapons, other military equipment and training; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to define a unified military strategy and use military tactics; the ability to speak with one voice and negotiate and conclude agreements such as cease-fires or peace accords.


[1]G.S Stewart, “Towards a single definition of armed conflict in international humanitarian law: A critique of internationalized armed conflict” , 85 (850) : 313- 350

[2] Ibid

[3] Article 3 common to the four geneva conventions of 1949 and by the additional protocol II

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