Law of War in International Law

30 Oct 2023  Read 1183 Views

Since the beginning, humans have resorted to violence in cases of disagreements. However, people from around the world felt the need to limit the brutalities of war, and the humanitarian spirit of humans led to the first-ever Geneva Convention of 1864, culminating in the birth of modern humanitarian laws which established the basic limits on how wars can be fought. These universal laws of war protect those not fighting, as well as those who are no longer able to.

To achieve this, a clear distinction must be made regarding who or what may be attacked and who or what must be spared. For example, civilians must never be targeted, as doing so amounts to war crimes. Thus, wars must have rules. Yes, you heard it right! wars do have rules.

War is complex and often devastating, which is why international laws now regulate how nations behave during conflicts. But do countries always follow these rules? Instances such as Russia- Ukraine war or Israel- Hamas conflict has gained this topic momentum.

So, Let's explore this topic in detail, explore various conventions, and discuss on key war crimes in simple terms.

Definition Of War 

War, a term that has been synonymous with conflict and destruction for centuries, can be perceived through two lenses: Early Sources (Pointers 1 & 2) and Modern Sources (Pointers 3 & 4). However, in the midst of this chaos, there exists a ray of hope- the international rules of war, formally known as international humanitarian law (IHL). These rules serves the primary purpose to maintain humanity in armed conflicts by saving lives and reducing suffering. 

  1. In the context of war, different cultures and texts have offered varying perspectives over the centuries. In ancient Indian mythology, as seen in the Mahabharata, principles of war revolved around not attacking those in distress and waging war for conquest rather than out of anger.
  2. Similar principles were present in the Torah, emphasizing the preservation of resources during conflicts and even offering terms of peace. The early Islamic leader Abu Bakr outlined rules of warfare that included sparing civilians, not harming trees, and showing respect for monastic services.
  3. As times changed, so did the concept of war. The modern era brought new definitions, with Hugo Grotius defining war as a contest between states seeking to impose conditions of peace. War expanded to encompass armed conflicts not only between states but also within states, involving armed groups.
  4. The United Nations (UN) emerged as a global peacekeeping body, aiming to prevent conflict and endorse military actions in select circumstances. Despite its noble mission, the UN has faced criticism for its limitations in effectively resolving contemporary conflicts, putting its credibility and effectiveness in question.

Understanding International Humanitarian Laws (IHL)

  1. Essence of IHL: IHL, often referred to as the rules of war, is a set of international guidelines that specifies what can and cannot be done during armed conflicts. These rules aren't just a random set of regulations; they serve as the bedrock upon which the world works to lessen the terrible impact of war.

  2. The Geneva Conventions: At the heart of IHL are the Geneva Conventions, a set of four international treaties ratified by all 196 states. The widespread support for these conventions highlights the world's shared agreement on the vital task of safeguarding humanity during conflicts. These conventions establish the fundamental principles and standards that protect the vulnerable, such as civilians, prisoners of war, and the sick and wounded.

  3. Dual Purpose of IHL: IHL regulates how wars are fought balancing two major aspects of warfare; Weakening the Enemy & Limiting Suffering. That is; on one hand it seeks to weaken the enemy to ensure the safety and security of the nation. On the other, it aims to limit the suffering endured by all parties involved, especially non-combatants.

  4. IHL must be respected: It's essential to recognize that IHL isn't a one-sided commitment. It applies to all parties engaged in warfare, whether they are governmental forces or non-State armed groups. This universality depicts the significance of these rules in preserving humanity in all circumstances.

  5. War Crimes and Accountability: When the rules of war are violated, there are severe consequences. War crimes are documented and investigated by both individual states and international courts. Those responsible for these crimes can be prosecuted, ensuring accountability and justice in times of conflict.

Israel Palestine War: The Israel- Hamas Conflict Explained

Conventions on Law of War

The Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions are the principal examples. International humanitarian law, often referred to as "Jus in Bello," serves as a vital framework governing the conduct of nations during armed conflicts. It not only mandates adherence to its principles but also demands innovation when confronted with evolving technologies and tactics in warfare. This dynamic relationship between the law and state practices ensures that IHL remains a compelling force, guiding nations towards a more humane and civilized approach to conflict. 

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions are the basis of international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war. These conventions, comprised of four key treaties, which provided a universally recognized framework for the protection of civilians and non- combatants like wounded soldiers and prisoners of war, during armed conflicts. They outline the obligations of states and other parties involved in conflicts, emphasizing the principles of humanity, proportionality, and distinction. The Geneva Conventions set standards for the treatment of individuals in times of conflict, aiming to mitigate the suffering and destruction caused by war, making them an essential component of international law and a vital instrument for fostering humanitarian values on a global scale.

Hague Conventions

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two major Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 emerged, marking crucial milestones in the development of international law during times of conflict. The 1899 Convention addressed issues ranging from the creation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to the treatment of prisoners of war, in compliance with the principles of the 1864 Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, the 1907 Second Hague Conference built upon these foundations, introduced significant progress in the regulation of warfare. These historic gatherings provided a vital framework for maintaining peace and humanity in a world tackling with the challenges of armed conflicts.

War Crimes

As discussed, International law, particularly the Geneva Conventions, lays out rules for warfare. Violating these rules can lead to war crimes. Here are some war crimes and their explanations:

  • Killing Civilians: Deliberately targeting and killing civilians, who are not actively participating in the conflict, is a war crime. For example, during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, numerous instances of civilian massacres were considered war crimes.

  • Torture and Inhumane Treatment: Subjecting prisoners of war or detainees to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment is strictly prohibited. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, where prisoners were abused, is an example of this war crime.

  • Attacking Medical Personnel and Facilities: Attacking hospitals, doctors, or nurses, who are providing medical care to the wounded, is a war crime. In the Syrian conflict, there have been reports of hospitals being intentionally targeted, leading to many casualties.

  • Using Chemical Weapons: The use of chemical weapons, like nerve agents or mustard gas, is banned. The Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people has raised serious concerns in recent years.

  • Forced Displacement: Forcing civilians to leave their homes or lands is considered a war crime. In the Balkans during the 1990s, people were often expelled from their homes based on their ethnicity.

  • Starvation of Civilians: Blocking access to food and humanitarian aid, intentionally causing starvation among civilians, is a war crime. The conflict in Yemen has seen the deliberate obstruction of food and aid to the civilian population.

Has anyone ever been convicted of a war crime?

Yes, there have been several instances where individuals and countries have been prosecuted for war crimes. Notable cases include:

  1. The Nuremberg Trials: After World War II, high-ranking Nazi officials were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg Trials. These trials set important precedents for the prosecution of individuals responsible for war crimes.

  2. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY): The ICTY was established to prosecute those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. It led to the indictment and conviction of numerous individuals, including political and military leaders.

  3. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR): Similar to the ICTY, the ICTR was established to prosecute individuals responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

  4. The International Criminal Court (ICC): The ICC is a permanent international court established to prosecute individuals for the most serious international crimes, including war crimes. It has conducted investigations and issued arrest warrants for individuals involved in various conflicts around the world.

  5. National Prosecutions: Many countries have also prosecuted individuals for war crimes under their national legal systems. These cases can involve both domestic and foreign individuals who are accused of committing war crimes.

Also read 10 Landmark Cases of International Law!


Under international law, the law of war acts as a guardian of humanity's values amid the chaos of conflict. From the Geneva Conventions to the Hague Conventions, these rules aim to protect people during wartime, emphasizing fairness and respect. As our world evolves, these laws continue to serve as ray of hope, reminding us to safeguard justice and compassion, even in the toughest times. They highlight our shared duty to reduce the suffering of war and uphold the rights of all, promoting a kinder and more enlightened global society.

Do check out our course on International Law: A smart guide to International Law providing with advanced training in principles & applications, designed specially for all competititve exams.

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 269 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Manager at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course). She is a patent analyst & had also done advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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