The Classification of Armed Conflicts by Jillian Hawley



            War is a fundamental element of the human condition. Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it best in saying that “Animals fight, but they don’t wage war. Only man – unique among primates – practises the large-scale, deliberate and enthusiastic destruction of his fellow creatures,” (Armitage, 2017, 8). Even while many in the world today, specifically those living in the developing world, have been living in what is commonly referred to as the “Long Peace” since 1945, the world remains a very violent place (Armitage, 2017). War, or rather armed conflict, is woven into the history and identity of the human nation, and so it is crucial to understand what it is and how it is classified in our modern world.

            In simplified terms an armed conflict is understood to occur when one party uses force against another, though even this determination is a point of contention (Kolb, 2014; Sriram et al, 2014). Traditionally, for example, the supposed parties of such conflicts were assumed to be states, but this has changed in the contemporary period (Gantzel and Schwinghammer, 2000). The two main distinctions between actors in armed conflicts are as either combatants or non-combatants; that is, those who participate in the armed conflict and those who do not (Kolb, 2014). While this distinction can often seem ambiguous, as will be discussed later in this blog, it is crucial in identifying the certain rights of those involved and the laws which can be applied (Wilmshurts, 2012). International laws serve to define and regulate the conduct during considered armed conflicts (Abass, 2014). These laws include the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and the two Additional Protocols from 1977, as well as a number of other supplementary treaties (Sriram et al, 2014). These treaties are the foundations for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (Kolb, 2014). Within this legal framework, the two main classifications of armed conflicts are international and non-international armed conflicts, in addition to cases where both are present simultaneously (Duxbury, 2007; Kolb, 2014). I will discuss these three cases below.

International Armed Conflicts

International armed conflicts (IAC) are conflicts which are solely between two or more states (Kolb, 2014). For this reason, international armed conflicts are also referred to as inter-state conflicts (Sriram, 2014). As an example, we can consider the wars between India and Pakistan (Sharma, 2012). These wars, as the name implies, were a series of conflicts between the countries of India and Pakistan which took place in 1947, 1965 and 1971 (Ganguly, 1995). Here we have a clear example of two international actors, i.e. states, engaging in an armed conflict with one another, thus making it an international armed conflict.

The laws concerning IACs specifically are much more refined than its counterpart because this form of armed conflict is the one which IHL was based upon (Kolb, 2014). International Humanitarian Law is predominantly concerned with regulating the behaviour of those who participate in armed conflicts, which was traditionally understood to be only a state’s military (Wilmshurts, 2012). Paramount among its rules is the principle of distinction, which concerns distinguishing between combatants, such as soldiers, and non-combatants, namely civilians (Bissonnette, 2016). Thus civilians are to be protected at all times from attack and are to be excluded from hostilities (ibid).

Non-international Armed Conflicts

            In contrast, a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) is an armed conflict that is “…between governmental forces and insurgents or between armed groups” (Kolb, 2014, 22). This means that a NIAC occurs when non-state actors, that is, individuals who are not representing the state’s government or military forces, also engage in the conflict. Legally, this is encoded in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (Paust, 2016). A historical example of a NIAC is the American Civil War. The war began in 1861 with two factions within the country, the Southern Confederacy and the Northern Union, engaging in the conflict (Carroll, 2012). Rather than two sovereign nations waging war against one another, this situation involved members of the same political unit, a country, fighting against their fellow citizens (Armitage, 2017). As one can imagine, this situation is much more complex than IACs. Combatants are traditionally understood to be a part of a state’s military forces, but when those who are participating in hostilities are not all a part of state forces, the line which is necessary in order to practise the principle of distinction can be blurred. Thus innocent people can be targeted and lose their lives without proper legal recourse to protect them. Additionally, under IHL an important protection is combatant immunity, where combatants are immune from the consequences of what would otherwise be considered murder because their actions are legally sanctioned (Kolb, 2014). Conversely, members of armed groups who are not a part of state forces are not afforded this same protection because they are not acting on behalf of a state government (ibid).

At first glance it may seem strange that such inconsistencies still exist. The main reason that there remains this distinction between IAC and NIACs, however, is because states are the main players in international law and internal conflicts threaten their sovereignty (Abass, 2014). Sovereignty is the founding principle of international law, and holds that state governments are in control of their territory and that territory cannot be breached or taken over by another state (Haj, 2013). When armed groups rise up against the state, or mobilize outside of the state’s control, this puts its own authority in jeopardy. For this reason, states do not have an interest in legitimizing armed groups that participate in internal conflicts with legal status comparable to IACs, and specifically armed groups who participate in them, because this would presumably undermine the states’ governments’ ability to treat such conflicts as unlawful (Wilmshurts, 2012). These kinds of conflicts, however, also referred to as intra-state conflicts, not only are the most common form of armed conflict today, but also last longer than conflicts between states (Sriram, 2014; Wilmshurts, 2012; Armitage, 2017). So while NIACs are lacking in legal representation, they are the most pervasive in our modern world.

A “Mixed-Bag” Conflict

            The two classifications above are understood as the “two basic types of armed conflicts,” but in practise this distinction is not so clear (Kolb, 2014, 22). For example, during the American Civil War there was a threat of British intervention in the conflict, which would have also added an international element (Carroll, 2012). There can also be cases where within the same state borders there exists both an internal armed conflict and an international one, such as the Syrian Civil war, for example (Kolb, 2014). While its name may be misleading, the Syrian conflict in fact includes both an IAC and NIACs within the same borders. The conflict began in 2011, and since that time the country has seen a multitude of actors take up arms (Seeberg, 2014). There was the conflict between the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian rebels (Corstange, 2018). This would appear to be a textbook example of an internal conflict, except for the fact the involvement of states such as Russia and the United States in supporting groups in order to secure their own interests, which also adds an international component to the war (Erlich, 2014). Additionally, the conflict became more convoluted with the participation of armed groups, such as the Islamic State, who are not necessarily fighting for the rebels or the government, but for an entirely different set of interests (Bennis, 2016). Thus this brings the war on terror into the fore, involving world powers in the conflict as well as Syria’s regional neighbours (ibid). This is a simple snapshot of an incredibly complex issue, but shows just how these classifications can overlap.


In this brief explanation it is clear that inconsistencies exist within these classifications and their relationship with international law. Thus, while it is vital to understand these classifications, it is also important to be aware that they are simply meant to serve as a stepping stones, and are not perfectly comprehensive. However, by shedding some light on the devices that are used to understand these concepts and how their roots are imbedded in the human narrative, this will help us to also understand ourselves.



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