Frequently asked questions on the rules of war

19 October 2016

Even wars have rules. What does that mean?

It means: You do not torture people. You do not attack civilians. You limit as much as you can the impact of your warfare on women and children, as well as on other civilians. You treat detainees humanely.

What are the Geneva Conventions?

The Geneva Conventions (and their Additional Protocols) are international treaties that contain the most important rules limiting the barbarity of war. They protect people do not take part in the fighting (civilians, medics, aid workers) and those who can no longer fight (wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops, prisoners of war). 

What are the rules of war?

The rules of war, or international humanitarian law (as it's formally known) are a set of international rules that determine what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict

The main purpose of international humanitarian law (IHL) is to maintain some humanity during conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering.

Is everybody obliged to follow the rules of war?

Yes, IHL is universal. The Geneva Conventions, which are central to IHL, have been ratified by 196 States. Very few international treaties have this level of support.
Moreover, everyone fighting a war needs to respect IHL, that means governmental forces and non-State armed groups.

What happens if you break the rules of war?

A State responsible for IHL violations must make full reparation for the loss or injury it has caused. Serious violations of IHL are war crimes. Individuals responsible for these crimes can be investigated and prosecuted.

Who enforces the rules?

States can enforce the rules through their national legal systems, diplomatic channels or international dispute resolution mechanisms. War crimes can be investigated and prosecuted by any State or, in certain circumstances, by an international court. The United Nations can also take measures to enforce IHL. For example, the Security Council can compel States to comply with their obligations or establish a tribunal to investigate breaches.

Why is torture not okay if it elicits life-saving information?

Torture and other forms of ill-treatment are absolutely prohibited everywhere and at all times. States have agreed that there can be no excuse for torture. Experts also question the effectiveness of torture in terms of the quality of information obtained. The suffering caused by such practices may have profoundly disturbing effects on victims that can last for years.

Is it illegal to bomb a civilian neighbourhood during wartime?

Over the last century, armed conflicts have been increasingly fought in populated areas. It's illegal to intentionally target civilians and civilian objects such as houses. All sides must, as much as possible, avoid locating military targets in or near population centres. If an attack is expected to cause "incidental civilian damage" that is excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, then the attack must not take place.

If armed groups are using a hospital or school as a base to launch attacks or store weapons, are those places then a legitimate military target?

The laws of war prohibit direct attacks on civilian objects, like schools. They also prohibit direct attacks against hospitals and medical staff. That said, a hospital or school may become a legitimate military target if it contributes to specific military operations of the enemy and its destruction offers a definite military advantage for the attacking side.

What does IHL say about refugees?

Refugees are people who have crossed an international border and are at risk or have been victims of persecution in their country of origin. People can become refugees for many different reasons, including reasons related to armed conflict. IHL generally protects refugees in the same way as other civilians who are affected by armed conflict. Some of these rules are adapted for refugees in order to reflect their particular vulnerability in the absence of protection by their State of nationality. IHL also protects persons who have not crossed an international frontier, but have, for whatever reason, also fled their homes. They're usually referred to as "internally displaced persons." Under IHL, people are protected from and during displacement as civilians, provided they do not take a direct part in hostilities.

If I'm a detainee and I'm tortured, how can I seek legal recourse?

As said above, torture and other forms of ill treatment are absolutely prohibited. When committed in the context of armed conflict, they constitute a war crime, which may be punished by a national or international court. People who have suffered torture may seek recourse against the responsible authority within their domestic legal system or by making a complaint to a competent human rights tribunal or human rights body.

How does IHL respond to the use of autonomous weapons like robots and drones?

IHL limits the right of parties to develop and use new means or methods of warfare like these. Whether or not a particular autonomous weapon is lawful depends on how it works and whether it can be used in a way that complies with international law, for example the requirement to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Are (so-called) "terrorist" groups accountable under the rules of war?

Organizations designated as "terrorist" are bound by IHL if they are organized armed groups engaged in armed confrontations of a certain intensity with another organized armed group or a State. In situations of armed conflict, IHL must be observed by all parties. When the situation of violence does not amount to an armed conflict, IHL does not apply to the armed group but the individual members of the organization remain accountable under applicable national law.

Why can't I imprison or kill the family of a terrorist after s/he has attacked my community?

A person must not be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. IHL reflects this principle by prohibiting collective punishment and reprisals against civilians. Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

How does IHL determine what is and isn't acceptable in time of war? Who are the people making these decisions?

IHL is developed by States through codification in legally binding documents or State practice. These two processes often overlap, and sometimes they are influenced by others such as the ICRC, international organizations or non-government organizations. This process continues today as the international community responds to new challenges.

States and armed groups break the rules of war all the time. Why and how exactly is IHL still relevant?

The instances where IHL is violated receive far greater attention than the consistency with which IHL is respected and applied. In many ways, the fact that compliance is unremarkable demonstrates the effectiveness of IHL in shaping parties' behaviour. Unfortunately, the violations are still too frequent, which is why States and the ICRC are working on strengthening compliance with IHL.

The Geneva Conventions came about at a time when war was fought between States. Today the majority of conflicts involve non-State armed groups as well. How has IHL kept up with the changing nature of conflict?

The rules of war contain fundamental principles that can be applied to new situations as they arise. States and other international actors work on developing the law as the need arises, for example when States agreed Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, providing more detailed rules for conflicts involving non-State armed groups. Rules can also develop over time as customary international law.

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