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Humane Conduct

International humanitarian law has also deduced a specific range of humane principles to be adopted by warring parties in order to respect the principle of humanity in the conduct of armed conflict. These principles are designed to encourage a range of protective actions that specify the general principle of humanity in operational principles for the harsh context of conflict. They are the principles of distinction, precaution, proportionality and unnecessary suffering.36

  • • Distinction-military forces are required always to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants in their military strategy and operations. This is the principle of distinction.37
  • • Precaution—civilians and non-combatants must be protected from harm as much as possible and significant precautions must be taken to warn them of impending military action, protect them from hostilities and avoid them during combat. This is the principle of precautionary measures.38
  • • Proportion-humanitarian law also makes clear that the "means and methods of war are not unlimited” and that force deployed by a military unit should only ever be used in appropriate proportion to the threat posed against it. This is the principle of proportionality in the use of force.39 It is closely linked to another humane principle developed in IHL, that military force should always avoid "unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury”.40

Together, these humane principles of military conduct must always guide combatants in armed conflict. However, at the same time, they are balanced by (and contend with) the equally significant principle of "military necessity” in international humanitarian law. This principle entitles combatants to use whatever force they deem necessary in pursuit of military advantage but without breaking the laws of war. It does not entitle combatants to do "whatever it takes”.41 As such, as Professor Marco Sassoli realistically observes, it does mean that current international humanitarian law is always "a compromise between humanity and military necessity: a compromise which cannot always satisfy humanitarian agendas, but which has the immense advantage that it has been accepted by states as law that can be respected, even in war”.42

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