The laws of war (Jus in bello) define the conduct and responsibilities of belligerent nations, neutral nations and individuals engaged in warfare, in relation to each other and to protected persons, usually meaning civilians.
Sources of the laws of war
The laws of war are mandatory for nations bound by the appropriate treaties, primarily the United Nations Charter, the Geneva conventions and the Hague conventions. There are also other customary unwritten rules of war, many of which were explored at the Nuremberg War Trials. By extension, they also define both the permissive rights of these powers as well as prohibitions on their conduct when dealing with irregular forces and non-signatories.
The agreements regarding acceptable practices while engaged in war are referred to as the jus in bello. Thus the Geneva Conventions are a set of jus in bello. Any international agreements or other international norms concerning the justifiable reasons for a country to declare war against another can be referred to as jus ad bellum.
Purposes of the laws
It has often been commented that creating laws for something as inherently lawless as war seems like a lesson in absurdity. But based on the adherence to what amounted to customary international law by warring parties through the ages, it was felt that codifying laws of war would be beneficial.
Some of the central principles underlying laws of war are:
- That wars should be limited to achieving the political goals that started the war (e.g., territorial control) and should not include unnecessary destruction
- That wars should be brought to an end as quickly as possible
- That people and property that do not contribute to the war effort be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship
To this end, laws of war are intended to mitigate the evils of war by:
- Protecting both combatants and noncombatants 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; and
- Facilitating the restoration of peace.
Conduct of warfare
Among other issues, the laws of war address declaration of war, acceptance of surrender and the treatment of prisoners of war; the avoidance of atrocities; the prohibition on deliberately attacking civilians; and the prohibition of certain inhumane weapons. It is a violation of the laws of war to engage in combat without meeting certain requirements, among them the wearing of a distinctive uniform or other easily identifiable badge and the carrying of weapons openly. Impersonating soldiers of the other side by wearing the enemy's uniform and fighting in that uniform, is forbidden, as is the taking of hostages.
Declaration of war
Some treaties, notably the UN charter (1945) Article 2, and some other articles in the charter, seek to curtail the right of member states to declare war; as does the older and toothless Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 for those nations who ratified it. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was used against Germany for waging an aggressive war at the Nuremberg War Trials.
Violations and applicability
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 use protected people or property as shields or camouflage are guilty of violations of laws of war and are responsible for damage to those that should be protected.
Well-known examples of such laws include the prohibition on attacking doctors or ambulances displaying a Red Cross, a Red Crescent or other emblem related to the International Federation of the Red Cross. 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, the persons protected by the Red Cross or white flag are expected to maintain neutrality, and may not engage in warlike acts; in fact, engaging in war activities under a white flag or red cross is itself a violation of the laws of war.
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.
Soldiers 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 an unlawful combatant 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 FNLA were captured by the MPLA in the civil war that broke out when Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975. 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 are only protected by the laws of war if the power which holds them is in a state of armed conflict or war and until they are found to be an unlawful combatant. Depending on the circumstances, they 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 neither approve nor condemn such acts, which fall outside their scope. Countries that have signed the UN Convention Against Torture have committed themselves not to use torture on anyone for any reason.
After a conflict has ended, persons who have committed any breach of the laws of war, and especially atrocities, may be held individually accountable for war crimes through process of law.