Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Principle of Humanity Definition:

A general principle of international law that provides that civilians are hors de combat and that even as regards to combatants, superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited.

Related Terms: Crimes Against Humanity, Humanitarian Doctrine

A principle of international law not only holds that civilians are hors de combat, but also that during war itself as between opposing soldiers, superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited.1

In his disappointing article, Geoffrey Com writes of the principle of humanity but never defines it; that it is represented by his choice of "treaty provisions that operate to protect the victims of war."

Still his words help in discerning the meaning of the term principle of humanity as follows:

"The principle of humanity is a fundamental principle of the law of armed conflict.... The principle protects combatants from unnecessary suffering, and individuals who are no longer, or never were, active participants in hostilities by mandating that they be treated humanely at all times...

"The principle of humanity provides an essential counter-balance to the equally fundamental principle of military necessity. The operation of these two principles ensures that in all situations of armed conflict there is a pragmatic balance between authority to take hostile measures to subdue an opponent and the obligation to limit the suffering associated with armed conflict to that which is genuinely necessary to accomplish this purpose. This balance lies at the very core of the law of armed conflict, and is reflected in virtually every international agreement related to the conduct of hostilities...

"The principle of humanity provides the foundation for both the prohibition against the subjecting of an opponent to superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering - injury or suffering beyond that which is necessary to bring about the opponent’s prompt submission - and the obligation to treat humanely those who are no
longer, or never were, active participants in armed hostilities..


  • Com, Geoffrey, Principle of Humanity (2013: Oxford School of Public International Law, 2013)
  • NOTE 1: Com, G., op. cit.

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