Global war: the rules of engagement

Wartime atrocities are as old as war itself. But today, international law sets strict limits on how states must fight – and why. Can the horrors of the battlefield really be refereed?

Every day, hundreds of Syrian refugees trudge across the border to neighbouring Turkey, bringing with them tales of horrendous suffering and abuse. Villages bombed to the ground, families tortured, soldiers executed in cold blood: the front line of the Syrian Civil War is a desolate, lawless place.

Orderly, prosperous and picturesque, the small Dutch city of The Hague could hardly be more remote from such war-torn lands. Yet this peaceful town is home to the International Criminal Court, where the world’s bitterest wars and most deadly atrocities are watched and judged.

Since 2002 the ICC has launched legal proceedings against 29 military and political leaders. Each is accused of human rights abuses, many of them committed in the midst of bloody wars, or of acts of international aggression.

These ‘crimes against humanity’ are the most fundamental aspects of a huge body of international law which, theoretically at least, governs even the most vicious of international conflicts.

The idea of ‘just war’ can be traced back until at least the 5th Century, when the great thinker Saint Augustine of Hippo attempted to reconcile killing and Christianity. Wars, he said, must never be fought for selfish ends, while peace must always be the ultimate objective.

Augustine was mostly concerned with the causes for war. The 17th Century Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius went further: even within wars, he said, there are some acts that ought to be outlawed – whether or not the cause was just.

Grotius’ ideas are often considered the foundation of international law. Not until the 19th Century, however, were these laws embodied in binding international treaties like The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

Today, vast tracts of legislation are codified in documents such as the Geneva Conventions. Other laws are enshrined in long-established custom. They govern everything from the treatment of prisoners to the weapons that can be used, and new articles are constantly being added. Cluster bombs, for instance, were outlawed only in 2008.

The rule of war

To many, this is a triumph of civilisation and progress. Today, they say, nobody can ever torture and degrade their fellow man without fear of retribution, however powerful they may be. The light of justice and humanity shines even on the chaos and carnage of war.

That is a cowardly fantasy, say pacifists: mass killing cannot be refereed like a game of football, and it is hypocritical to pretend otherwise. All international law has achieved, they say, is to drape the inhuman horrors of the battlefield in the respectable robe of law and due process. The only war crime that matters is war itself.

You Decide

  1. Is there any such thing as a ‘just war’?
  2. Does making a legal framework for war legitimise war itself?


  1. In groups, create a charter that sets out the laws by which you believe all laws should be governed.
  2. Research a famous war leader from history, and imagine they are being put on trial for their wartime actions. You are the prosecutor: write a brief speech outlining the accusations you would make.

Some People Say...

“All wars are crimes.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does international law make it less likely that I will suffer from war?
Theoretically, yes: today, it is illegal for a state to go to war for selfish purposes like territory or resources. But such laws are difficult to enforce unless the international community takes military action against an aggressor. Many people argue, for instance, that the Iraq War was illegal – but even if it was, the USA is too powerful to face trial.
So it’s all just theory?
Not quite. The ICC is currently trying suspected war criminals from around the world, including Serbia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just this month, prosecutors finished making their case against former Serbian president Radovan Karadzic, who is accused of genocide.

Word Watch

Crimes against humanity
This phrase was first used in 1860 to describe the slave trade. It only became international law, however, in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials, when prominent Nazis were judged for their involvement in the Holocaust. Whenever a group of people is continually subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment – systematic torture, mass murder, severe discrimination – their persecutors may be tried for crimes against humanity.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
Saint Augustine was a bishop who lived in Northern Africa during the early days of Christianity. His writing on the relationships between Jesus and humanity and between Heaven and Earth are the bedrock of much of Christian theology. He was also instrumental in founding the Catholic Church, and defining how Christian rulers should deal with worldly realities.
Geneva Conventions
Three sets of Geneva Conventions were established before the Second World War. But the fourth, drawn up in 1949, was the most instrumental in defining the laws of war. The Geneva Conventions established rules for the treatment of prisoners of war and protections for affected civilians. They do not, however, deal with the rules of fighting itself, such as which weapons are legal.

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