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The Place of “Humanitarian Law” in Imam Khomeini’s Worldview

The present Op-Ed, published by Khamenei.ir, tries to discuss and locate the principles of humanitarian law, both in theory and practice, in Imam Khomeini’s character and thought.

This is done with special attention to Imam Khomeini’s leadership during the Iraqi 8-year imposed war against Iran.

From the beginning of human life, conflicts and wars have been an inseparable part of human life and events such as looting, terrible massacres, and holding women and children captive in different periods indicate that violation of others’ rights and lack of commitment to humanitarian principles have been a recurrent theme in history. Unfortunately, with the development of science and technology and military equipment, the oppressive and bullying humans had no limitations in using it because the main goal was to completely destroy the enemy at whatever cost. Humanitarian law paved the way to develop some principles in an attempt to reduce savagery and cruelty in battles to not only support the victims of these armed conflicts, but to reduce the scope and consequences of the hostilities and wars of the parties to the conflict.

  1. Concept, goals, and principles of humanitarian law

International humanitarian law is a set of principles that seek to limit the consequences of conflicts. This branch of international law supports the rights of those who are not involved in the conflicts or have left the battlefield and, as it was mentioned, places limitations on the use of the military equipment and methods of war. International humanitarian law determines the rights of individuals and countries in armed conflicts as well as their duties in these conflicts. Furthermore, by limiting the injuries and damages caused by armed conflicts and prohibiting the use of some weapons, it supports the military and the civilians and non-military targets in armed conflicts.[1]

The international humanitarian law is mainly focused on the principle of supporting individuals. Its goal can be classified into traditional and modern: a) the traditional goal includes reducing human suffering during war and limiting or prohibiting the use of some instruments and methods in war; b) the modern goal, on the other hand, concerns respecting the high position and dignity of human beings and pursuing, putting to trial, and punishing war criminals. On the other hand, from the perspective of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the following principles are the basic principles of international humanitarian law.

1.1. Humane behavior and lack of discrimination

According to this principle, all human beings should be treated humanely and without any discrimination irrespective of their nationality, race, religion, etc. The word “people” includes all those who cannot or do not want to participate in fighting.

1.2. Military necessity

Military necessity means that any military action or activity should be justified based on military reasons and activities without military necessity are prohibited. Therefore, attack on the civilians in the battlefield is prohibited.

1.3. Limitation

The most important interpretation of the principle of limitation is that humanitarian law has prohibited the use of the weapons that cause unnecessary or excessive injuries.

1.4. Distinction

Distinction between the civilians and combatants is a basic and absolute principle of the international humanitarian law.

1.5. Proportionality

According to this principle, it is not acceptable to gain victory over the enemy “by any possible means”. Therefore, in directing the war, the parties to the conflict should try not to cause excessive accidental suffering compared to the direct and absolute military advantages expected to be gained in a military attack.

  1. Islam and humanitarian law

As according to the Holy Quran, Islamic teachings are a guide to all people in the world, it does not matter where on earth a person lives and from what race or nationality s/he is. On this basis, from the very beginning, Islam brought up the idea of peaceful life and determined peace (not war) as the basis for the relationship of Muslims with other nations. Accordingly, Islam is the religion of peace and security and considers war an adventitious and imposed phenomenon. It has set peace and peaceful coexistence as the basis for one’s relationship with others. Muslims are allowed to use weapons only when they have been attacked or when aggressors have threatened their independence, freedom, and the Islamic rule. In this case, it is necessary and obligatory to defend against aggression and, for this purpose, Islam has presented detailed plans and principles based on justice, mercy, and observing human rights and dignity considering the fact that observing justice and not exceeding the reasonable human limits against the enemies have been highly emphasized in the Quran. There are numerous examples from the life of the Prophet (pbuh) during war showing that he not only paid attention to humanitarian considerations such as distinction between civilians and combatants, tolerance toward the captives, etc. but recommended observing human principles in war whenever he deployed the armed forces to the battlefield.

  1. A brief look at the violation of the humanitarian law by the Bai’th regime of Iraq in its imposed war against Iran

In its invasion on the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Iraqi army invaded and occupied many border cities and villages in southern Iran and inflicted serious damages on some of them in a way that no plants and creatures were left alive in some of these areas. The Bai’th regime did not limit war to the battlefield and attacked residential areas and civilians in such cities as Ahvaz and Kermanshah many times. Besides, attack on the schools, hospitals[2], and agricultural and industrial facilities and infrastructures, which were necessary for people to continue living, were also attacked by Iraq.[3] The use of chemical weapons was another anti-human action taken by the Bai’th regime against Iran[4]; not only this regime acknowledged having used chemical weapons, but there is also evidence showing that England, the US, France, etc. supplied these weapons to Iraq. The reports of the UN experts also confirmed this. The Iraqi Bai’th regime used chemical bombs[5] not only against the Iranian combatants but also against the civilians in the border towns such as Sardasht.[6]

  1. Imam Khomeini’s view on the humanitarian principles and rules

Although Imam Khomeini has not directly used the term “humanitarian law” in his statements and speeches, his leading the country during the the 8-year imposed war is totally consistent with the humanitarian principles and rules. In the following section, we are going to discuss how these principles are reflected in the thought and worldview of Imam Khomeini in practice and theory.

4.1. Observing humane behavior without discrimination

Observing humane behavior without discrimination is one of the most basic humanitarian principles in Islam. From the perspective of Imam Khomeini, forgiveness, kindness and humane-Islamic behavior with the enemy forces are among the basic ethical values in the field of defense, which the armed forces need to observe. As an example, he stated in this regard: “I am talking to those in power on the battlefield who have made Saddam and his followers desperate; be careful not to use this power to take revenge in a way that is inconsistent with the Islamic principles… We need to observe the humanitarian principles until martyrdom and death.”[7]

4.2. Rejecting oppression in armed conflicts

Islam orders those who fight in the path of Allah not to go beyond justice and fairness and not to step in the path of oppression.[8] In another verse, the Holy Quran warns the Muslim combatants on the battlefield not to forget justice and morality: “and ill feeling for a people should never lead you to be unfair. Be fair; that is nearer to Godwariness, and be wary of Allah. Allah is indeed well aware of what you do.”[9] Based on this Islamic teaching and after Iraq’s attack on the Iranian cities and killing of the civilians, addressing the Iranian combatants, Imam Khomeini stated: Beware of becoming angry by your cities being bombarded and your dear ones being killed and taking revenge in the same way… Beware of shooting even one single bullet toward their cities [as opposed to military targets].”[10]

4.3. The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants

Based on the Islamic teachings, those who are not participating in war are granted immunity. On this basis, Imam Khomeini prohibited attacking the civilians and made a distinction between the civilians and the combatants stating that: “There is a difference between the commanders of the armed forces of Iran and those of Iraq; the difference is that they think of Islam and want to take action based on Islamic principles. Therefore, they do not attack defenseless cities, and do not attack the people in the market, and the people and the poor anywhere else… But the Iraqi commanders…drop their bombs right on the cities.” This statement of Imam Khomeini points to the need to make a distinction between civilians and combatants and between the military and non-military targets and the need to support women and children.

4.4. Constrained use of weapons

Islam has defined a humanitarian framework for the battlefield based on a general and Islamic principle, according to which indulgence in killing, even if it is justified, is forbidden and a Muslim commander is not free to choose whatever weapon to use; some weapons including chemical and toxic ones are forbidden in war. Accordingly, Imam Khomeini expressed his concern about the production and accumulation of destructive weapons in the world and considered it one of the plights of today’s world and asked the thinkers and the nations to stand against the production of these weapons. Based on the documents presented by the United Nations, Iran never used chemical weapons against the Iraqi combatants and civilians.[11] Imam Khomeini even declared the use of these weapons as haram (religiously prohibited). In his book “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare”, Gareth Porter, the American journalist, wrote: “The real reason for Iran’s failure to use chemical weapons was…the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini had forbidden it on the grounds of Islamic jurisprudence.” (p. 63).[12] It is worth noting that the current leader of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khamenei, has the same view on the use of inhumane weapons of mass destruction; he has also considered the production and accumulation of these weapons as haram. In this regard, he once stated, “Use of nuclear weapon not only has led to widespread killing and destruction, but made no distinction between the people in general, between the military and the civilians, the youth and adults, men and women, the children and the elderly, etc. and its anti-human effects went beyond political and geographical borders and even inflicted irrecoverable damage to the next generations; therefore, any use of and even threatening to use this weapon is a serious violation of the most basic humanitarian principles and a clear example of war crimes.”[13]

4.5. Observing proportionality in military activities

From the perspective of Imam Khomeini, the strategy of overcoming the enemy using “any possible means” is prohibited. Therefore, he emphasized that the attacks should not lead to killing of ordinary people and cause damage to their properties. He stated in this regard: “If we had no fear of hurting the dignified people of Iraq, if we, our army and nation thought in the same way as Saddam, that moving forward though by killing the nations, though by killing children and women…, you would see today that Iraq has no one to help it… Our army is committed to Islam…and does not drop one single bomb over the Iraqi cities.”[14]

4.6. Protection of the environment

As the first source of law in Islam, the Quran cares a lot about the environment and has emphasized this in many verses. While the Bai’th regime of Iraq carried out numerous actions to destroy the environment including bombarding of oil fields of Iran[15], Imam Khomeini condemned it stating that: “None of those who claimed support for peace asked Saddam, the initiator of this war, what crime or sin had this nation (the Iranian nation) committed that made you destroy and burn the result of tens of years of their strife and investment in industries, factories, on farms and fields.”[16]

4.7. Kindness to prisoners of war

In the imposed war, when the Iraqi military forces were held captive by the combatants of Islam, emphasizing the need to treat them with kindness and to avoid using violence and annoying them, Imam Khomeini considered them as guests of the Islamic Republic of Iran stating that: “Our army and revolutionary guards should have a humanitarian behavior toward those who have been held captive and be even more committed to this human behavior. I advise those in charge of these captives to treat them with good and human behavior as they are like guests to you.”[17] He remarked on another occasion, “Sympathize with the prisoners of war you are holding captive and show an Islamic-humane behavior toward them and send the Iraqi injured to hospital as soon as possible to be treated and physicians and nurses at hospitals, whose valuable and hard work is highly appreciated, should treat them like their relatives and brothers and so mitigate the bitterness of injury and captivity by their Islamic behavior.”[18]


The present article tried to investigate and analyze the place the concept and principles of humanitarian law have in Imam Khomeini’s worldview. It is shown that the main principles of humanitarian law do exist in Imam Khomeini’s thought, which itself is originally based on and derived from Islamic principles and tenets. Besides the theoretical presence of the principles of humanitarian law in Imam Khomeini’s worldview, in terms of practice, such principles are clearly observed in his leadership of the country during the Iraqi 8-year imposed war against Iran. In other words, this article showed that Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Republic of Iran, even in the most difficult conditions, like Saddam’s imposed war on Iran, would not resort to inhumane and oppressive methods and measures and have always tried to respect human integrity and honor.



[1] https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/what_is_ihl.pdf

[2] Mosaffa, N. (2018). Impact of Iran-Iraq War on Iranian Children. Iranian Review for UN Studies, 1(1), 1-26. doi: 10.22034/iruns.2018.80915

[3] Murauskaite, E. (2016). Saddam’s Use of Violence against Civilians during the Iran-Iraq War. Middle East Journal, 70(1), 47-68. Retrieved May 31, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43698619

[4] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/08/26/215733981/new-details-on-how-u-s-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran

[5] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-mar-19-fg-sardasht19-story.html

[6] https://merip.org/2006/06/the-whole-range-of-saddam-husseins-war-crimes/

[7] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 13, p. 543.

[8] Holy Qur’an, 2: 190.

[9] Holy Qur’an, 5: 8.

[10] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 18, p. 212.

[11] https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/chemical/

[12] Porter, Gareth. Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. Just World Books, 2014.

[13] Ayatollah Khamenei, 2010, 04, 17.

[14] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 14, p. 279.

[15] Joffe, A.H. The environmental legacy of Saddam Husayn: The archaeology of totalitarianism in modern Iraq. Crime, Law and Social Change 33, 313–328 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008343313967

[16] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 20, p. 321-22.

[17] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 13, p. 512.

[18] Sahifa Imam Khomeini, vol. 16, p. 268.

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