The scope of
international armed conflicts (IACs) and
non-international armed conflicts (NIACs)


The legal framework that regulates the conduct of war or armed conflicts is termed International Humanitarian Laws (IHLs). These laws are basically concerned with two sorts of armed conflicts: 

1. international armed conflicts (IACs), which occur when more than one state is engaged with another with or without any formal declaration of conflict, and 

2. non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), which represent hostilities between government armed forces and more than one non-governmental armed group.

However, regarding the above question, we will first try to discuss the basic concepts of IACs and NIACs, then the scope of legal regimes relating to these concepts, and finally try to focus on the potential development of legal documents concerning these concepts as a difficult scenario in the present world.

International Armed Conflicts (IACs):

According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, common article 2 states that IACs occur when one or more states resort to armed force against another state, regardless of the reasons or intensity of this confrontation. 

Therefore, it declares clearly that any armed conflicts that are international are between two legal parties; for example, in the Syrian war, without the legal permission of the Syrian government, a UD-led coalition intervened in Syria to deter IS (Islamic States). 

Moreover, according to the 2017 war report, almost 55 armed conflicts occurred in 29 states and territories.

Non-International armed conflicts (NIACs):

For the definition of non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), two legal documents are available: 

a. Common Article 03 of the Geneva Convention of 1949; and 

b. Article 01 of Additional Protocol II of 1977. 

Article 03 defines NIACs as hostilities that may occur between government armed forces and non-governmental armed forces or groups, or between such groups only.

Protocol II defines NIACs in two categories, namely, a. territorial control of non-state groups; and b. state versus non-state conflicts rather than groups only.

Non-international armed conflicts are generally classified into two types, namely, low-intensity NAICs and high-intensity NIACs. The category of low intensity in non-international armed conflicts refers to the conflicts between the armed forces of a state or an international organization and organized armed groups. 

The concept of low intensity in NIACs dictates the scope of application of Common Article 3-4 of the Geneva Convention of 1949.

The second additional protocol of the Geneva Convention of 1977 introduces a new category in non-international armed conflicts: the high intensity of NIACs.

Low and high intensity of NIACs differ in two manners: 

a. in the latter category, the organized armed groups must control a part of the territory of the state where the conflicts are taking place; 

b. high intensity NAICs must be between multiple armed forces of a state and independent organized armed groups. 

However, conflicts between multiple armed groups are necessarily low intensity, even when one or more of the armed groups controls territory.

Scope of legal regime on IACs & NIACs:

The applicability of international humanitarian laws (IHLs) depends on the existence of armed conflicts. So it is really crucial to understand whether an armed conflict is international or non-international in nature. 

If a conflict is international, then the Geneva Convention of 1949 will be applicable, and if the state ratifies the Convention, the Additional Protocol I will also be applicable. And when the conflict is domestic or non-international, Article 03 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and Additional Protocol II will be applicable there.

Moreover, customary international laws will also be applicable in both sorts of conflicts. In the matter of NIACs, customary international laws are very important, as there are a few documents and treaties available related to NIACs. 

Besides, there are differences in regulations relating to IACs and NIACs because states are never keen on accepting norms relating to internal matters. In short, states believe this is within their own territorial sovereignty.

Need to reinterpret the legal regimes?

Basically, international humanitarian laws are not limited to the Geneva Convention or Hague Convention; rather, they have been developed throughout history, particularly in the twentieth century. 

Whatever regulations we find in Geneva or the Hague Convention are mostly international norms or customs that become laws after the popular consensus of the civilized world. 

Therefore, IHLs have evolved gradually relating to the matter of war through many legal documents. For example, the Anti-Mine Treaty and Conventions relating to the prohibition of the use of chemicals, biologicals, nuclear weapons, etc. have also become part of IHLs.

Concerning the question, yes, we believe there is a need to reinterpret or modify legal documents relating to armed conflicts. As experts pronounce, especially the Red Cross Office, the present complex world compelled them to rethink legal regimes. 

The nature of “War on Terror”, a transnational armed conflict, has some differences in definition from that of other international armed conflicts.

In 2019, the ICRC, which acts as the savior of international humanitarian laws, published some new challenges that tensed them to modify the legal framework. One of the challenges for IHLs or ICRCs is non-state actors within or outside one’s territory. In recent years, the ICRC has faced extreme challenges because of the proliferation of non-state entities in armed conflicts. 

In some of the most complex recent conflicts, analysts observed hundreds, if not thousands, of groups engaging in armed violence. Recently, the ICRC has communicated with over 400 armed groups all over the world with the aim of ensuring the rights, safety, and dignity of those affected by armed conflicts.

IHLs have some regulations regarding non-government armed groups in Additional Protocol II, but the non-state entities in present times have varied in nature and are compelled to rethink legal regimes. What IHLs find difficult is identifying the groups that engage in conflicts—who is fighting with whom? 

The ICRC and others have often described non-state armed groups as increasingly being organized horizontally rather than vertically, and that, sociologically speaking, some of them may not even constitute one single group at all.

“Alliances” or “coalitions” are the novel nature of non-state groups, which also forced IHLs to reinterpret the legal regimes applicable to IACs and NIACs. Here, sometimes a few groups fight with the state to counter other groups, and vice versa. 

So you cannot fix which groups are anti-government or pro-government, as they frequently change their positions based on their political objectives. And finally, IHLs faced another difficulty called “splinter groups”. It represents the emergence of new groups from former groups. 

In short, there is a group within a group, and they have diverse objectives that need to be understood in applying legal provisions to the conflicts. Therefore, the varied nature of non-state entities within or outside state territory needs to be well understood to reinterpret the legal regimes relating to IACs and NIACs.


International or non-international armed conflicts depends on the actors and places engaged in conflicts. International Humanitarian Laws (IHLs) have provided definition mostly to these terms with legal framework. But the present nature of conflicts and actors have been largely expanding. 

And as the developed laws- IHLs have to cope up with these scenario. That’s why they need to a change or rethink about the legal regimes relating to armed conflicts. And here experts of ICRC, the prominent actor of IHLs, try hard to overcome this complexity.







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