The “General Close of Military Operations” and the End of Armed Conflicts

by | Sep 21, 2022

General close of military operations

The temporal scope of applicability of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) or Law of Armed Conflict (LoAC) – terms I use interchangeably in this post – has long been of personal scholarly interest. My academic work on the subject includes a book on the temporal scope as a whole, an article about the beginning of application of IHL, and this book chapter focused on the Geneva Conventions and the end of occupation. Treatment of how armed conflicts end and the corollary question of when LoAC ceases to apply as a whole was missing from this list. This post is an opportunity to sum-up my findings on that question and to close a scholarly, yet highly practical loop. I write on the occasion of the recent publication of my related article in the Canadian Yearbook of International Law.

Beyond the LOAC questions it has raised relating to content, protection afforded, constraints imposed and even future developments, the current situation in Ukraine has revived questions regarding initiation of armed conflict and therefore also concerning the applicability of LoAC. Yet, all conflicts also end. The purpose of this post is to offer a step back, decontextualized from any specific situation, to consider the determination of the end of an armed conflict and the overall end of applicability of IHL.

Issue Framing

At first sight, the issue of IHL applicability is quite simple. However, the end of applicability of IHL is a functional and factual question determined by every gradual change in the circumstances of conflict that gave rise to IHL application. Additionally, the factual criteria used to identify an end of IHL application do not mirror those used to determine its legal beginning. The likely result of this, together with a seeming lack of legal symmetry, is some confusion or uncertainty.

This post will not address the functional and gradual end of application of IHL. The questions related thereto are comparatively clear. For instance, prisoners of war enjoy the protections they are entitled to until their final release and repatriation (Article 5 of Geneva Convention III), whether during or after the end of an armed conflict. Similarly, civilians remain protected by Geneva Convention IV (GC IV) even after the end of an armed conflict until their release, repatriation or re-establishment (Article 6 para. 4 of GC IV). In the same vein, obligations related to the search for missing people or to the depollution of sites where there are remnants of war operate without time limits. They continue to apply as long as the fate of all missing people has not been elucidated and as long as there are remnants of war to remove, even long after an armed conflict has ended (respectively Articles 33 of Additional Protocol I and Article 3 of Protocol V to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, for example).

Instead, I will address when IHL ceases to apply, as a body of law. It is a question that is not dealt with squarely, in either the 1949 Geneva Conventions or in their 1977 Additional Protocols. These instruments leave open ended the question of when an armed conflict may be considered to have ended. At first blush the omission may be one of the more glaring shortcomings of the Geneva regime.

Yet it occurs that the notion of “general close of military operations,” which appears in Article 6 para. 2 of GC IV and in Article 3(b) of Additional Protocol I, may fulfill the law-termination function. Others have relied on this notion too, either for international armed conflicts only (Milanovic), multinational military operations (Schaller) and detention (Weizmann), more widely when elaborating four theories for the end of armed conflicts (Lewis, Blum, & Modirzadeh), or when referring to the above mentioned provisions (Sassòli, Kolb, & Hyde, 2016 ICRC Commentary of Common Article 2). My contribution to the debate is to demonstrate that more broadly the “general close of military operations” approach comprises a comprehensive approach to determining when any armed conflict, whether international or non-international, has ended in a legal sense.

The first appearance of the phrase “general close of military operations” was in GC IV, adopted in 1949. Additional Protocol I of 1977 reiterated the phrase at Article 3(b). Two conclusions follow from this observation. First, as part of the broader objective of anchoring the applicability of the Conventions in facts rather than in any formal legal act, this expression aims at reflecting what happens on the ground in order to regulate IHL applicability. Second, even if the phrase “general close of military operations” only appeared in GC IV, and not in a common Article, such as Article 2 or 3 for example, its reiteration for any situation in Protocol I is evidence of a will to expand the notion further beyond its original appearance in GC IV.

There is, however, no definition of what should be understood by the expression. Moreover, a dive in the history of its introduction through the travaux préparatoires reveals several layers of discussions during the diplomatic conference of 1949 from which it is difficult to excerpt a linear meaning. Examining the temporal scope of applicability of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, and broadly speaking of IHL, does, however, allow general conclusions about its meaning and about its usefulness to consider any armed conflict as over.

The Meaning of the Phrase

Regarding its meaning, first, the “general close of military operations” occurs when all maneuvers related to a given conflict cease. Relevant indicators of a close include the following. First, troop movements linked to a pre-existing armed conflict must have ceased. Military operations cover a myriad of activities. As long as they persist, the conflict has not ended. Here a distinction between the foreign territory where they have taken place and the territory of the armed forces at stake may be distinguished. The first hypothesis is rather clear. As long as a presence on a foreign territory with an intent to engage in combat is seen, the conflict has not ended. The second hypothesis, i.e. when troop movements continue to be observed on the national territory of the armed forces, either after they have returned to it or because they have actually never left it, may be more complicated. If all such movements of troops were to be covered, the conflict would never end. Therefore, it is necessary to refer to a specific conflict. If, for example, troops continue to carry out activities for hostile purposes on their own territory after their withdrawal, then the “general close of military operations” has not occurred and the conflict has not ended. If, on the contrary, the military activities taking place on that territory no longer have any connection with the pre-existing armed conflict, then it can be considered that the conflict has ended.

From the first indicator follows the second one. The “general close of military operations” must be distinguished from the “end of (active) hostilities,” another expression found in some provisions of IHL. Indeed, the “end of (active) hostilities” may occur long before the “general close of military operations.” In reality, the “end of (active) hostilities” is the expression that was chosen to differentiate the applicability of some specific provisions of IHL. It marks a moment in time when parties to a given conflict must fulfill certain obligations such as the repatriation of prisoners of war (Article 118 of Geneva Convention III) and internees (Article 46 of Geneva Convention IV), the registration of the dead (Article 17 of Geneva Convention I and 130 of Geneva Convention IV), the search for the missing (Article 33 of Additional Protocol I) or records of the location of minefields, for example (Article 7 of Protocol II to the CCW Convention). Therefore, the “end of (active) hostilities” is an expression that has nothing to do with the meaning of the end of an armed conflict but rather with the beginning of applicability of some provisions of IHL.

The third indicator relevant to consider the “general close of military operations” to have occurred is based on the term “general.” Dr. Jean Pictet’s Commentary elaborated on the meaning of this term already in the 1960s. He referred to the “the final end of all fighting between all those concerned” (Commentary of Article 6 of Geneva Convention IV). If an armed conflict has involved more than two parties, it has not ended as long as military operations have not ceased among some of them, notwithstanding their cessation among some of the others.

Fourth, and finally, the phrase “general close of military operations” and hence the end of an armed conflict relies on an ex-post observation. Indeed, in most cases it will simply be impossible to set an uncontested date when that moment has happened. Rather, it reflects a combination of elements that, observed all together, will be decisive. It may be for example a unilateral declaration indicating the willingness of a party to lay down arms or an agreement providing for the cessation of the conflict, if indeed followed by the silence of weapons and the withdrawal of armed forces from a contested territory. In sum, the return to normal conditions will be most often take place gradually rather than suddenly.

Declassification of All Types of Armed Conflicts

Regarding the relevance of this expression for both international and non-international armed conflicts, although it appears only in conventional provisions related to international armed conflict, the following factors deserve consideration. First, it must be stressed that even for international armed conflicts the solution is not as straightforward as it could be. Indeed, as explained above the “general close of military operations” only appears in Geneva Convention IV, which is the only of the four Conventions adopted in 1949 to contain a general provision regarding the end of its applicability. Contrary to Common Article 2, which reads the same in all Conventions regarding the beginning of their general applicability, there is no such general and common provision for its end. Rather, Conventions I and III contain a provision that regulates only the length of the benefit of the statuses they provide, namely, the wounded and the sick and prisoners of war (Article 4 of Convention II seems unworthy of mention as it relates only to the distinction between “embarked” and “disembarked” forces).

However, Additional Protocol I, which replaces and/or supplements the 1949 provision(s), offers a synthesis stating that “the application of the Conventions and of this Protocol shall cease, in the territory of Parties to the conflict, on the general close of military operations” (Article 3 of Additional Protocol I). This is confirmed by a close reading of the travaux préparatoires and of the corresponding ICRC commentary of 1987.

Second, the regulatory field is completely empty regarding termination of non-international armed conflicts. Neither Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions nor Additional Protocol II contains any provision relating to their general end of applicability. And an additional consideration must be taken into account concerning declassification of a situation of non-international armed conflict, namely, the two criteria, intensity and organization, for initial classification as an armed conflict. It might be deduced that reversal of one or both of these criteria is relevant to declassification.

Still, if for some the conditions for declassification of non-international armed conflicts should mirror those for their classifications, some arguments suggest otherwise. This is the case most notably with the ICRC Commentary on Article 3 of Additional Protocol I and of case law, both of which support what the international judges have named a “peaceful settlement” of the situation as a standard for declassifications of non-international armed conflicts (for a comprehensive analysis see the contribution at the Canadian Yearbook of International Law at 16-19). Moreover, an analogy with the end of military occupation confirms that this conclusion is valid. Indeed, if boots on the ground are necessary in order to realize the underlying conditions of Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations, just as organization and intensity are required for the classification of non-international armed conflicts, it may well be that a unilateral withdrawal of the occupying power’s troops produces no impact on the classification of the situation, just as a decrease of the intensity of the violence or a temporary lack of organization may not affect the existence of a non-international armed conflict.

As I stated in my Canadian Yearbook of International Law contribution:

Today’s non-international armed conflicts often show a decrease of intensity, sometimes to levels below the relevant threshold for classification, followed again by an increase in violence. The same occurs with the organization criterion: sometimes armed groups lose their internal discipline for a period of time, or they even disappear totally and are replaced by newcomers. If we were to consider each time this happens that the applicability of IHL has ended, and later consider each time the required thresholds are met again that the applicability of IHL has resumed, it would lead to too much uncertainty. It would create a kind of oscillation where, at some points, IHL is applicable and then no longer applicable and then applicable again. This cannot be the solution. Stakeholders must know what law has to be applied and that it has to be applied for a certain period of time.

From the above it follows that if the beginning of international armed conflicts may be triggered by a single event, their end often depends on the fulfilment of a combination of indicators that lead to the “general close of military operations.” Conversely, while the realization of the conditions for the classification of non-international armed conflicts may take some time in order for intensity and organization thresholds to be met, it is not their progressive disappearance that ends them but the pacification of the situation, which is materialized by the “general close of military operations.”


Julia Grignon is an Associate Professor of the Faculty of Law at Laval University (Canada).


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