The law of war is a legal term of art that refers to the aspect of public international law concerning acceptable justifications to engage in war (jus ad bellum) and the limits to acceptable wartime conduct (jus in bello or International humanitarian law).
Among other issues, modern laws of war address declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and the treatment of prisoners of war; military necessity, along with distinction and proportionality; and the prohibition of certain weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering.
The law of war is considered distinct from other bodies of law—such as the domestic law of a particular belligerent to a conflict—that may also provide legal limits to the conduct or justification of war.
- 1 Early sources and history
- 2 Modern sources
- 3 Purposes of the laws
- 4 Principles of the laws of war
- 5 Example substantive laws of war
- 6 Applicability to states and individuals
- 7 Remedies for violations
- 8 International treaties on the laws of war
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Early sources and history
Attempts to define and regulate the conduct of individuals, nations, and other agents in war and to mitigate the worst effects of war have a long history. The earliest known instances are found in the Mahabharata and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
In the Indian subcontinent, the Mahabharata describes a discussion between ruling brothers concerning what constitutes acceptable behavior on a battlefield:
One should not attack chariots with cavalry; chariot warriors should attack chariots. One should not assail someone in distress, neither to scare him nor to defeat him ... War should be waged for the sake of conquest; one should not be enraged toward an enemy who is not trying to kill him.
An example from the Deuteronomy 20:19–20 limits the amount of acceptable collateral and environmental damage:
When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege: Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.
Also, Deuteronomy 20:10–12, requires the Israelites to make an offer of peace to the opposing party before laying siege to their city.
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.
Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:10–14 requires that female captives who were forced to marry the victors of a war could not be sold as slaves.
Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.
Furthermore, Sura Al-Baqara 2:190-193 of the Koran requires that in combat Muslims are only allowed to strike back in self-defence against those who strike against them, but, on the other hand, once the enemies cease to attack, Muslims are then commanded to stop attacking.
In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church also began promulgating teachings on just war, reflected to some extent in movements such as the Peace and Truce of God. The impulse to restrict the extent of warfare, and especially protect the lives and property of non-combatants continued with Hugo Grotius and his attempts to write laws of war.
One of the grievances enumerated in the American Declaration of Independence was that King George III "(...) has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
The modern law of war is derived from three principal sources:
- Lawmaking treaties (or conventions) — see the section below called "International treaties on the laws of war".
- Custom. Not all the law of war derives from or has been incorporated in such treaties, which can refer to the continuing importance of customary law. (see Martens Clause). Such customary international law is established by the general practice of nations together with their acceptance that such practice is required by law.
- General Principles. "Certain fundamental principles provide basic guidance. For instance, the principles of distinction, proportionality, and necessity, all of which are part of customary international law, always apply to the use of armed force".
Positive international humanitarian law consists of treaties (international agreements) which directly affect the laws of war by binding consenting nations and achieving widespread consent—see the section below called "International treaties on the laws of war".
The opposite of positive laws of war is customary laws of war, many of which were explored at the Nuremberg War Trials. These laws define both the permissive rights of states as well as prohibitions on their conduct when dealing with irregular forces and non-signatories.
The Lieber Code, promulgated by the Union during the American Civil War, was critical in the development of the laws of land warfare. Historian Geoffrey Best called the period from 1856 to 1909 the law of war’s “epoch of highest repute.” The defining aspect of this period was the establishment, by states, of a positive legal or legislative foundation (i.e., written) superseding a regime based primarily on religion, chivalry, and customs. It is during this “modern” era that the international conference became the forum for debate and agreement between states and the “multilateral treaty” served as the positive mechanism for codification.
In addition, the Nuremberg War Trial judgment on "The Law Relating to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity" held, under the guidelines Nuremberg Principles, that treaties like the Hague Convention of 1907, having been widely accepted by "all civilised nations" for about half a century, were by then part of the customary laws of war and binding on all parties whether the party was a signatory to the specific treaty or not.
Interpretations of international humanitarian law change over time and this also affects the laws of war. For example Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia pointed out in 2001 that although there is no specific treaty ban on the use of depleted uranium projectiles, there is a developing scientific debate and concern expressed regarding the effect of the use of such projectiles and it is possible that, in future, there may be a consensus view in international legal circles that use of such projectiles violate general principles of the law applicable to use of weapons in armed conflict. This is because in the future it may be the consensus view that depleted uranium projectiles breaches one or more of the following treaties: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Charter of the United Nations; the Genocide Convention; the United Nations Convention Against Torture; the Geneva Conventions including Protocol I; the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980; the Chemical Weapons Convention; and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
Purposes of the laws
Some of the central principles underlying laws of war are:
- Wars should be limited to achieving the political goals that started the war (e.g., territorial control) and should not include unnecessary destruction.
- Wars should be brought to an end as quickly as possible.
- People and property that do not contribute to the war effort should be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship.
To this end, laws of war are intended to mitigate the hardships of war by:
- Protecting both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering.
- Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, and civilians.
- Facilitating the restoration of peace.
Principles of the laws of war
Military necessity, along with distinction, and proportionality, are three important principles of international humanitarian law governing the legal use of force in an armed conflict.
Military necessity is governed by several constraints: an attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
Distinction is a principle under international humanitarian law governing the legal use of force in an armed conflict, whereby belligerents must distinguish between combatants and civilians.[lower-alpha 1]
Proportionality is a principle under international humanitarian law governing the legal use of force in an armed conflict, whereby belligerents must make sure that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property is not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by an attack on a military objective.
Example substantive laws of war
To fulfill the purposes noted above, the laws of war place substantive limits on the lawful exercise of a belligerent’s power. Generally speaking, the laws require that belligerents refrain from employing violence that is not reasonably necessary for military purposes and that belligerents conduct hostilities with regard for the principles of humanity and chivalry.
However, because the laws of war are based on consensus, the content and interpretation of such laws are extensive, contested, and ever-changing. The following are particular examples of some of the substance of the laws of war, as those laws are interpreted today.
Declaration of war
Some treaties, notably the United Nations Charter (1945) Article 2, and other articles in the Charter, seek to curtail the right of member states to declare war; as does the older Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 for those nations who ratified it.
Lawful conduct of belligerent actors
Modern laws of war regarding conduct during war (jus in bello), such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions, provide that it is unlawful for belligerents to engage in combat without meeting certain requirements, such as wearing distinctive uniform or other distinctive signs visible at a distance, carrying weapons openly, and conducting operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Impersonating soldiers of the other side by wearing the enemy’s uniform is allowed, though fighting in that uniform is unlawful perfidy, as is the taking of hostages.
Combatants also must be commanded by a responsible officer. That is, a commander can be held liable in a court of law for the improper actions of his or her subordinates. There is an exception to this if the war came on so suddenly that there was no time to organize a resistance, e.g. as a result of a foreign occupation.
Persons parachuting from an aircraft in distress
Modern laws of war, specifically within Protocol I additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, prohibits attacking persons parachuting from an aircraft in distress regardless of what territory they are over. Once they land in territory controlled by the enemy, they must be given an opportunity to surrender before being attacked unless it is apparent that they are engaging in a hostile act or attempting to escape. This prohibition does not apply to the dropping of airborne troops, special forces, commandos, spies, saboteurs, liaison officers, and intelligence agents. Thus, such personnel descending by parachutes are legitimate targets and, therefore, may be attacked, even if their aircraft is in distress.
Red Cross, Red Crescent, and the white flag
Modern laws of war, such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions, also include prohibitions on attacking doctors, ambulances or hospital ships displaying a Red Cross, a Red Crescent, the Red Crystal, or other emblem related to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It is also prohibited to fire at a person or vehicle bearing a white flag, since that indicates an intent to surrender or a desire to communicate.
In either case, persons protected by the Red Cross/Crescent or white flag are expected to maintain neutrality, and may not engage in warlike acts. In fact, engaging in war activities under a protected symbol is itself a violation of the laws of war known as perfidy. Failure to follow these requirements can result in the loss of protected status and make the individual violating the requirements a lawful military target.
Applicability to states and individuals
The law of war is binding not only upon States as such but also upon individuals and, in particular, the members of their armed forces. Parties are bound by the laws of war to the extent that such compliance does not interfere with achieving legitimate military goals. For example, they are obliged to make every effort to avoid damaging people and property not involved in combat, but they are not guilty of a war crime if a bomb mistakenly hits a residential area.
By the same token, combatants that intentionally use protected people or property as human shields or camouflage are guilty of violations of the laws of war and are responsible for damage to those that should be protected.
Remedies for violations
During conflict, punishment for violating the laws of war may consist of a specific, deliberate and limited violation of the laws of war in reprisal.
Combatants who break specific provisions of the laws of war lose the protections and status afforded as prisoners of war, but only after facing a "competent tribunal" (GC III Art 5). At that point, they become unlawful combatants but they must still be "treated with humanity and, in case of trial, shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial", because they are still covered by GC IV Art 5. For example in 1976, foreign soldiers fighting for the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) were captured by the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the civil war that broke out when Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975. In the Luanda Trial, after "a regularly constituted court" found them guilty of being mercenaries, three Britons and an American were shot by a firing squad on July 10, 1976. Nine others were imprisoned for terms of 16 to 30 years.
Spies and terrorists may be subject to civilian law or military tribunal for their acts and in practice have been subjected to torture and/or execution. The laws of war do not approve nor condemn such torture or execution. Spies may only be punished following a trial; if captured after rejoining their own army, they must be treated as prisoners of war. Suspected terrorists who are captured during an armed conflict, without having participated in the hostilities, may be detained only in accordance with the GC IV and are entitled to a regular trial. However, nations that have signed the UN Convention Against Torture have committed themselves not to use torture on anyone for any reason. Nationals of nations which have not signed the Fourth Geneva Convention are also not protected by it (Article 4: "Nationals of a State which is not bound by the Convention are not protected by it".), whether they are spies or terrorists. Also, nationals of nations which have not signed and do not abide by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are not protected by them. (Common Article 2: "[The High Contracting Parties] shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to [a Power which is not a contracting party], if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof" (emphasis added).)
If someone is (or is suspected to be) a national of a nation which has signed or abides by the Fourth Geneva Convention (see Art. 2 and Art. 4 citations above), or is (or is suspected to be) a "prisoner of war" (POW) per the definitions of such "protected persons" in the Third Geneva Convention (see Art. 4 and Art. 5), the following applies: A POW who breaks specific provisions of the laws of war may be penalized, but not penalized worse than the tribunal would penalize its own troops for the same offense (and usually a disciplinary, not judicial, punishment if its own troops normally wouldn't be brought to trial for a particular offense) and POWs may not be penalized based on rank or gender, nor with corporal punishment, collective punishments for individual acts, lack of daylight, or torture/cruelty (GC IV, Art. 82 through Art. 88).
After a conflict has ended, persons who have committed or ordered any breach of the laws of war, especially atrocities, may be held individually accountable for war crimes through process of law. Also, nations which signed the Geneva Conventions are required to search for, then try and punish, anyone who has committed or ordered certain "grave breaches" of the laws of war. (see GC III, Art. 129 and Art. 130)
While it can be argued that the victors may be less strict on their own forces, it can also be argued that the signing of the treaties involved in the laws of war implies a good-faith promise to adhere to them equally. As with many facets of war, the aftermath and subsequent legal proceedings depend heavily on circumstance, and are different for each conflict.
There is an emerging trend in the US to hold private corporations civilly liable for aiding and abetting in war crimes, by knowingly providing substantial assistance in the commission of the crimes. Under international law, the mens rea element is knowledge, not intent that the crimes be carried out. This opens the door not only to hold private security contractors liable, but also other kinds of corporations which employ violent mercenary or terrorist groups as private security forces. Although conflict zones often lack functioning legal systems, and government may even have passed laws immunizing private mercenaries from criminal liability, aiding and abetting a war crime can still be the basis for civil liability in a foreign court with jurisdiction over the defendant corporation.
International treaties on the laws of war
- see also List of international declarations
- 1856 Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law abolished privateering.
- 1864 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.
- 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Time of War, of Explosive projectiles Under 400 grams Weight.
- 1874 Project of an International Declaration concerning the Laws and Customs of War (Brussels Declaration). Signed in Brussels 27 August. This agreement never entered into force, but formed part of the basis for the codification of the laws of war at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.
- 1880 Manual of the Laws and Customs of War at Oxford. At its session in Geneva in 1874 the Institute of International Law appointed a committee to study the Brussels Declaration of the same year and to submit to the Institute its opinion and supplementary proposals on the subject. The work of the Institute led to the adoption of the Manual in 1880 and it went on to form part of the basis for the codification of the laws of war at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.
- 1899 Hague Conventions consisted of four main sections and three additional declarations (the final main section is for some reason identical to the first additional declaration):
- I – Pacific Settlement of International Disputes
- II – Laws and Customs of War on Land
- III – Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of Principles of Geneva Convention of 1864
- IV – Prohibiting Launching of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons
- Declaration I – On the Launching of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons
- Declaration II – On the Use of Projectiles the Object of Which is the Diffusion of Asphyxiating or Deleterious Gases
- Declaration III – On the Use of Bullets Which Expand or Flatten Easily in the Human Body
- 1907 Hague Conventions had thirteen sections, of which twelve were ratified and entered into force, and two declarations:
- I – The Pacific Settlement of International Disputes
- II – The Limitation of Employment of Force for Recovery of Contract Debts
- III – The Opening of Hostilities
- IV – The Laws and Customs of War on Land
- V – The Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land
- VI – The Status of Enemy Merchant Ships at the Outbreak of Hostilities
- VII – The Conversion of Merchant Ships into War – Ships
- VIII – The Laying of Automatic Submarine Contact Mines
- IX – Bombardment by Naval Forces in Time of War
- X – Adaptation to Maritime War of the Principles of the Geneva Convention
- XI – Certain Restrictions with Regard to the Exercise of the Right of Capture in Naval War
- XII – The Creation of an International Prize Court [Not Ratified]*
- XIII – The Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War
- Declaration I – extending Declaration II from the 1899 Conference to other types of aircraft
- Declaration II – on the obligatory arbitration
- 1909 London Declaration concerning the Laws of Naval War largely reiterated existing law, although it showed greater regard to the rights of neutral entities. Never went into effect.
- 1922 The Washington Naval Treaty, also known as the Five-Power Treaty (6 February).
- 1923 Hague Draft Rules of Aerial Warfare. Never adopted in a legally binding form.
- 1925 Geneva protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.
- 1927–1930 Greco-German arbitration tribunal.
- 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact (also known as the Pact of Paris).
- 1929 Geneva Convention, Relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.
- 1929 Geneva Convention on the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick.
- 1930 Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament (22 April).
- 1935 Roerich Pact.
- 1936 Second London Naval Treaty (25 March).
- 1938 Amsterdam Draft Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations Against New Engines of War. This convention was never ratified.
- 1938 League of Nations declaration for the "Protection of Civilian Populations Against Bombing From the Air in Case of War."
- 1945 United Nations Charter (entered into force on October 24, 1945).
- 1946 Judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
- 1947 Nuremberg Principles formulated under UN General Assembly Resolution 177 21 November 1947.
- 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
- 1949 Geneva Convention I for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.
- 1949 Geneva Convention II for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea.
- 1949 Geneva Convention III Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
- 1949 Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
- 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
- 1971 Zagreb Resolution of the Institute of International Law on Conditions of Application of Humanitarian Rules of Armed Conflict to Hostilities in which the United Nations Forces May be Engaged.
- 1974 United Nations Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict.
- 1977 United Nations Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.
- 1977 Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.
- 1977 Geneva Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.
- 1978 Red Cross Fundamental Rules of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts.
- 1980 United Nations Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (CCW).
- 1980 Protocol I on Non-Detectable Fragments.
- 1980 Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices.
- 1980 Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons.
- 1995 Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons.
- 1996 Amended Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices.
- Protocol on Explosive Remnants of War (Protocol V to the 1980 Convention), 28 November 2003, entered into force on 12 November 2006.
- 1990 Ottawa Treaty banning the use of landmines.
- 1994 San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea.
- 1994 ICRC/UNGA Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of the Environment in Time of Armed Conflict.
- 1994 UN Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel.
- 1996 The International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.
- 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction.
- 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (entered into force 1 July 2002).
- 2000 Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (entered into force 12 February 2002).
- 2005 Geneva Protocol III Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem.
- 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (entered into force 1 August 2010).
- Customary international humanitarian law
- List of Articles of War
- Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts Project (RULAC)
- Command responsibility
- Crime against humanity
- International law
- Islamic military jurisprudence
- Law of occupation
- Law of the Sea
- Right of conquest
- Total war
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- Targeted killing
- War crime
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- Moreno-Ocampo 2006, See section "Allegations concerning War Crimes" Pages 4,5.
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- Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Geneva, 22 August 1864
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- What is a war crime? BBC online 31 July 2003 (Tarik Kafala).
- Sharon cannot be tried in Belgium, says court The Guardian 15 February 2002 (Andrew Osborn)
- reviews of Michael Byers, War Law, and David Kennedy, Of War and Law, Democratiya, Autumn 2007 (Irfan Khawaja)
- UN Charter
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