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The 'Rules Of War' Are Being Broken. What Exactly Are They?

Jun 28, 2018

What are the rules of war?

It's a timely question in the wake of attacks on civilians, aid workers and hospitals in conflict zones around the world. Just this week, three hospitals in southern Syria were bombed by pro-government forces, according to The Washington Post.

After such incidents, there are many references to the "rules of war."

In January, a British MP wrote an op-ed in The Guardian calling for the prosecution of the forces in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates "for any violations against civilians and breaches of the rules of war." This month the coalition's forces have been attacking the port city of Hodeida, Yemen's lifeline to critical aid, food and fuel.

Doctors Without Borders has this month declared "that the conduct of hostilities in Syria may violate the basic rules of war."

The president of UNICEF in Canada has declared, "Around the world, the rules of war are under attack — and so are millions of children."

The rules of war are part of the Geneva Convention and they first were established in the 19th century.

They dictate what can and cannot be done during armed conflict. They aim to protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed.

Representatives of aid groups say there is a growing disregard for these rules in conflict zones around the world. "It has become glaringly obvious that respect for international humanitarian law is in decline," says Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead of Oxfam America, a global aid agency.

History of the rules of war

Although our modern rules of war can be traced back to ancient civilizations and religions, it was Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, who began the process of codifying these customs into international humanitarian law. In 1864, he helped establish the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty that required armies to care for the sick and wounded on the battlefield. It was adopted by 12 European countries.

Over the next 85 years, diplomats debated and adopted additional amendments and treaties to address the treatment of combatants at sea and prisoners of war — not just combatants on battlefields. In 1949, after the horrors of World War II, diplomats gathered again in Geneva to adopt four treaties that reaffirmed and updated the previous treaties and expanded the rules to protect civilians. They're now collectively known as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and contain the most important rules of war.

Upholding the rules

Since then, the rules of war have been ratified by 196 states. They protect people who are not fighting in the conflict and curb the brutality of war by setting limits on the weapons and tactics that can be employed. In 2014, for example, the rules helped guarantee safe passage for civilians in South Sudan to flee violence.

They're also used in domestic and international courts to determine if a government or non-governmental militant group is guilty of a war crime. If a warring party is accused of violating international humanitarian law — whether by an individual, group, country or observer — countries are obligated to investigate. The U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, helped punish war criminals who committed mass atrocities during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

The U.N. Security Council, a group of 15 countries at the U.N. charged to maintain international peace and security, may also impose sanctions — like a travel ban or an arms embargo — as an incentive for warring parties to comply with the rules of war.

Enforcing the rules can be difficult. For example, the five veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council — the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France — must vote unanimously to pursue a resolution that might call for an investigation, refer a case to a court for trial, threaten sanctions or propose another motion. But often one or several of these countries has a vested interest in the conflict in question.

As mandated by the Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a special role to play as a guardian of these laws. The ICRC tracks the evolution of warfare and makes recommendations for updates to the rules accordingly. It also participates in U.N. discussions on crises and potential violations to ensure the rules are being upheld.

In addition, the ICRC helps inform the public of the rules of war through videos and social media messaging. This 2-minute film, titled "Why we can't save her life," won a Grand Prix award at the Cannes Lions festival in France this month. The film reminds people that hospitals are not a target.

The rules of war

Although there are many rules contained in the Conventions, here are six crucial principles that are relevant to ongoing conflicts. Because the rules themselves often use legal terms, we have paraphrased the language. To read the original language, click here:

1. No targeting civilians

Intentionally targeting civilians, buildings such as schools or houses and infrastructure like water sources or sanitation facilities is a war crime. Killing or injuring a person who has surrendered or is no longer able to fight is also prohibited, as is punishing someone for an act that another person, even a family member, has committed.

Attacks should only be directed at military objectives, and military targets such as bases and stockpiles should not be placed in or near populated areas.

If the expected "incidental civilian damage" of an attack is "excessive and disproportionate" to the anticipated military gain, then the attack legally cannot be carried out.

There is one caveat: a civilian structures, for example a school, may become a legitimate target if it is being used for specific military operations — as a base to launch attacks, for example, or a weapons storehouse.

2. No torture or inhumane treatment of detainees

Torture and other forms of cruel, degrading or ill treatment are expressly prohibited. The lives, rights and dignity of detainees should be preserved. They must be given food and water, protected from violence and allowed to communicate with their families.

There are no exceptions to this rule, even when torture might elicit lifesaving information.

3. No attacking hospitals and aid workers

The wounded and sick always have a right to be cared for, regardless of which side of the conflict they're on. Medical and aid workers who are on duty in these areas make an effort to be neutral and serve both sides of the conflict. They must, therefore, be protected by all warring parties and allowed access to collect and care for the wounded and sick.

If combatants see a red cross or red crescent, symbols of the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, they should know that person or place should not be attacked

But the rules of law do grant an exception for hospitals as well as other civilian structures. If a hospital is being used for specific military operations, it may become a legitimate target.

4. Provide safe passage for civilians to flee

Parties to a conflict must take all reasonable steps to evacuate civilians from areas where there is fighting. In the heat of conflict, such steps can take the form of advanced warnings or the creation of "safe corridors" for civilians to leave a besieged city and for humanitarian workers to deliver aid and services. Civilians must never be blocked from fleeing.

5. Provide access to humanitarian organizations

Civilians and militants who are no longer fighting in the conflict have a right to receive the help they need, whether it's medical care, food, water or shelter. This means that restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid — through naval and air blockades, closing ports or confiscating supplies — is prohibited. In fact, deliberately causing starvation and hunger is a war crime.

6. No unnecessary or excessive loss and suffering

The tactics and weapons used in war must be proportionate and necessary to achieve a definitive military objective. The use of weapons that are "by nature indiscriminate," according to the Geneva Conventions, is prohibited.

For example, the use of land mines, while not banned, is limited because they can indiscriminately kill and maim both combatants and civilians.


Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter @joannelu.

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