Where wars erupt, suffering and hardship invariably follow. Conflict is the breeding ground for mass violations of human rights including unlawful killings, torture, forced displacement and starvation.
In conflicts across the globe, governments and armed groups routinely attack civilians and commit war crimes and terrible abuses of human rights.
And yet, even in war there are rules that all sides are legally bound to obey. International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the laws of armed conflict or the laws of war, has developed in order to mitigate the effects of such conflict. It limits the means and methods of conducting military operations. Its rules oblige combatants to spare civilians and those who no longer participate in hostilities, such as soldiers who have been wounded or have surrendered. IHL applies only during armed conflict; human rights law applies in war and peace.
But powerful nations have shown a sinister willingness to manipulate international institutions or apply double standards, often arming forces known to commit mass abuses while disclaiming responsibility for the carnage.
Although international organizations such as the United Nations have advanced in their capacity to monitor and report on human rights in conflict situations, few perpetrators of mass abuses against civilians are held accountable.
Continuing violence feeds on unresolved grievances arising from years of destructive conflict and this failure to hold perpetrators of grave abuses to account.
Amnesty International does not take sides in conflicts and has no opinion on borders. Our work in situations of armed conflict concentrates on documenting and campaigning against human rights abuses and violations of IHL, no matter who commits them.
The vast majority of armed conflicts today are internal. Many internal conflicts have persisted for decades, despite significant international efforts to find solutions.
These conflicts are often triggered by issues of identity, ethnicity, religion and competition for resources, particularly oil and mineral wealth.
In Afghanistan, the escalating conflict has resulted in death and injury to thousands of civilians. War crimes have been committed by all parties to the conflict, including international and Afghan security forces, and the Taleban.
In Iraq, security forces are committing rather than preventing sectarian violence. The Iraqi justice system is woefully inadequate and the worst practices of Saddam Hussein's regime – torture, including rape, extra-judicial executions, unfair trials and capital punishment – continue.
There have been frequent allegations of human rights violations by US and UK soldiers but few prosecutions and convictions.
At least a dozen countries in Africa have been affected by armed conflict over the last year, despite numerous peace and international mediation processes. In all of them civilians suffered human rights abuses, and the most affected were women, children and elderly people.
What Amnesty International is doing
AI calls on all warring parties to respect IHL and human rights, and emphasises to state forces and armed groups that targeting civilians can never be justified.
Amnesty International campaigns for an end to impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
We are campaigning to curb the proliferation of small arms fuelling conflict and abuses, including lobbying for the adoption of a global Arms Trade Treaty.
Amnesty International campaigns for international peacekeepers to protect civilians in Darfur and eastern Chad, and has urged its supporters across the world to write to Sudanese MPs, calling on them to take a stand against the atrocities happening in their country.
Amnesty International is also actively campaigning to end the recruitment of child soldiers and to ensure that they are demobilized and reintegrated into society.
We are lobbying the UN for strengthened protection of civilians, including strict adherence to human rights and humanitarian law in peacekeeping efforts.
Progress on accountability
The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 to prosecute people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It offers the hope that some of the perpetrators of the worst crimes committed in armed conflicts will be brought to justice. It has been hailed by governments, legal experts and civil society as the most significant development in international law since the adoption of the United Nations Charter. Amnesty International has been actively involved in all stages of the establishment of the Court.
The ICC has issued arrest warrants for people accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in armed conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan (Darfur), and Uganda.
International tribunals established to try serious crimes committed in Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone have brought to justice leaders who have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In December 2006, an overwhelming majority of states voted at the UN General Assembly to consider the question of a universal and legally binding Arms Trade Treaty, a landmark step towards greater accountability of the arms trade..