The Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts project (RULAC) of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights is a unique online portal that identifies and classifies situations of armed conflict, provides information on the parties to these conflicts, and applicable international law. It aims to provide an independent and impartial classification of situations of armed conflict in the world based on open source information in a format that is accessible to a wide audience, including non-lawyers and non-specialists in international humanitarian law.
The RULAC project is a legal reference source for a broad audience interested in issues surrounding the classification of armed conflicts under international humanitarian law, including legal experts, government officials, policy makers in international organizations or NGOs, humanitarian practitioners, and journalists who work on humanitarian or security issues, and academics.
It is supported by a law clinic at the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex.
The RULAC project aims to provide information about:
- the definition and categories of armed conflict under international humanitarian law
- the legal framework governing armed conflicts
- why a situation of armed violence in the world is an armed conflict pursuant to international humanitarian law criteria
- the parties to these conflicts
The classification of situations of armed violence is fraught with difficulties. Some governments deny that they are involved in armed conflicts, arguing that they are engaged in counter-terrorism operations not governed by international humanitarian law. Others apply international humanitarian law to situations that do not amount to an armed conflict under international humanitarian law. Moreover, contemporary armed conflicts are increasingly complex due to the multitude of state and non-state parties involved.
The RULAC project focuses on the legal principles governing classification and the identification of parties to such conflicts and illustrates how these principles apply in practice by making a legal determination whether a situation of armed violence in the world qualifies as an armed conflict under international humanitarian law based on open source information.
The RULAC project is intended to assist other actors that may want to classify situations of armed violence for their purposes. By making such information available to a broad, non-specialist audience, including by using visual tools, the RULAC project strives to contribute to a better understanding of the meaning of armed conflicts under international humanitarian law and the consequences flowing from such a qualification.
While there are many definitions of armed conflicts used for different purposes, the question whether or not a situation of armed violence amounts to an armed conflict as understood in international humanitarian law, has important consequences. Most importantly, states involved in armed conflicts will have rights and duties that do not exist outside armed conflicts as understood under international humanitarian law: international humanitarian law only applies in situations of armed conflict. Below the threshold of an armed conflict, states must respect international human rights law, which is more restrictive than international humanitarian law, in particular in respect of the use of force and detention of individuals. All parties to a conflict, including, non-state armed groups, are bound by international humanitarian law. In contrast, there are on-going discussions to what extent and under which circumstances international human rights law is applicable to non-state armed actors. Moreover, war crimes may only be committed in connection with an armed conflict, the law of neutrality may be triggered, and arms control treaties may be affected.
Similarly, the distinction between international and non-international armed conflict matters for various reasons. First, there is no generic category of armed conflict under international humanitarian law, but two discrete categories, i.e. international and non-international armed conflicts. The two categories are based on different definitions and different criteria to assess whether or not a given situation amounts to an international or non-international armed conflict. Second, there remain important differences in the regimes governing international and non-international armed conflicts. Most notably, combatant immunity or the formal status of civilian only exists during international armed conflicts. From the perspective of enforcement, the regime governing grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions is limited to international armed conflicts.
By providing an independent and impartial assessment based on open source information, RULAC strives to promote a more coherent approach to classification of conflicts, and, ultimately, to foster implementation of the applicable legal framework, which is a key element for accountability and the protection of victims.
To our best knowledge, there is no other institution that systematically and publicly undertakes such classifications.
The RULAC project uses international humanitarian law to classify situations of armed violence and to identify parties to a conflict.
International humanitarian law distinguishes two categories of armed conflicts:
- International armed conflicts that oppose two or more states, including situations of military occupation.
- Non-international armed conflicts that are fought between government forces and one or more organized non-state armed group, or between such groups.
From a humanitarian law perspective, there is no other category of armed conflict. These two categories accommodate a broad range of situations: they encompass asymmetric contexts where one side may only intervene from the air and deploy advanced technology and weapons as well as situations featuring many multiplying and fragmenting non-state armed groups. Yet, other situations characterized by high degrees of armed violence may be excluded, for example situations of internal disturbances or riots where there is no organized armed opposition group. The legal methodology for classifying situations of armed violence in accordance with the definition of international humanitarian law is explained in more detail in the classification section.
The information available on this website is the result of desk research carried out by legal experts, relying on open source information, amongst others, reports of international organizations and NGOs, newspaper articles, and legal texts.
Significant efforts have been made to ensure that the information on this website is accurate and represents a diversity of views. Nonetheless, the information and materials offered may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors. We welcome feedback, including proposed corrections and suggestions for additions.
The RULAC project is limited to situations of armed conflict as understood under international humanitarian law and does not address other situations of armed violence, including situations that may be called ‘conflict’, ‘war’ etc., using other criteria. Using international humanitarian law to make a legal determination and identify legal consequences leads to such a limitation. Yet, this limitation in no way means that we consider that such other situations of armed violence may have less serious humanitarian consequences.
The RULAC project is still under development and new entries continue to be added. The conflicts initially included in the RULAC project are those that have emerged since 2011 and are still ongoing. Information on conflicts that started before 2011, including their classification, can be found on the old RULAC website.
The RULAC project contains both theoretical information on the applicable legal frameworks and provides an illustration of how such frameworks apply in concrete situations of armed violence in the world.
You can find the following types of entries in the RULAC project:
- The legal framework section summarizes the main branches of international law that apply to situations of armed conflicts. They clarify their respective scope of application, relevance, and explain key legal terms and contested issues in the context of armed conflicts.
- The classification section details how situations of armed violence are classified under international humanitarian law and provides the methodological basis for our assessments of concrete situations of armed violence and identification of parties to these conflicts.
- Conflict entries classify a concrete situation of armed violence and detail on what basis we are making such a classification. They also identify both state and non-state parties to such conflicts and the applicable law. We geo-localize conflicts in the country that is the main theater of hostilities. You can filter the conflict entries according to the type of armed conflict and according to regions.
- Country entries identify the armed conflicts a country is currently involved in. You can filter country entries according to the type of conflicts they are involved in and according to regions.
You can explore the RULAC project in different ways:
- You can search the entire RULAC website with free text search field on the home page and on every other page.
- You can browse the map, conflicts, countries, and the legal framework and classification sections.
- You can filter the map according to type of armed conflict and states involved in armed conflicts. If there are several armed conflicts in a particular state, the conflicts may be grouped together and will separate as you zoom in on the map.
- You can filter conflict and country entries according to type of armed conflict and regions.
The RULAC project started in May 2007 as a global database focusing on the implementation of international humanitarian law in situations of international and non-international armed conflicts in every country or territory in the world.
The old RULAC website determined whether a particular state was involved in an armed conflict as defined under international humanitarian law; detailed the legal framework in place for every state or territory, including for states that were not a party to an armed conflict; and provided information on both national and international practice and case law concerning the implementation of international law during times of armed conflict.
During the conceptualisation of the new RULAC website, we decided to focus on classification of armed conflicts and identification of the parties to such conflicts because such classifications have become increasingly complex. Many conflicts nowadays involve a multitude of actors. To our best knowledge, there is no other institution that systematically and publicly undertakes such classifications. As a consequence, the scope of the new RULAC website is both broader and narrower. It is narrower in the sense that it is now limited to situations of armed conflicts and the countries that are involved in such countries. Yet, it is also broader because it clearly identifies all state parties to armed conflicts, including non-territorial states.
The RULAC database was established thanks to support from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of Sweden, and has also received significant support from the Governments of Denmark and the United Kingdom. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs continues to fund the project. The views expressed in the RULAC do not reflect those of the project’s supporters or partners.