The LOAC is triggered by the existence of an armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, the LOAC does not apply and domestic law will govern.
There are two types of armed conflicts, International Armed Conflicts and Non-international Armed Conflicts. No gap exists between them; either one or the other exists in the event of armed hostilities. There is no such thing as unregulated hostilities.
- International Armed Conflicts (IAC) are conflicts between States. The linchpin to determining if an IAC exists is to ask “is there a conflict between states that has lead to the intervention of armed forces?” The scope and duration of the conflict does not matter; nor does it matter if there has been a formal declaration of war. If there is a conflict between States that has lead to the intervention of armed forces, an IAC exists. IACs fall under the Geneva Conventions through Common Article 2. According to Common Article 2, all four (4) Geneva Conventions, as well as both of the Two Additional Protocols, apply in their entirety to an IAC.
- Non-international Armed Conflicts (NIAC) are all other types of armed conflicts. The law governing NIACs was originally written in response to horrific civil wars. NIACs fall under the Geneva Conventions through Common Article 3 which requires that all people be treated humanely, and the wounded and sick are cared for. Now, under customary international law, all of the main LOAC principles apply in a NIAC. However, the requirement to treat a captured enemy as a Prisoner of War, and the protection afforded to an enemy belligerent not be tried as a criminal for activities carried out during the armed conflict (privilege of belligerency), do not apply in a NIAC.