Laws of War

It seems appropriate today, Remembrance Day, for a law blog to reflect for a moment on the laws of war. These seemingly prime examples of a contradiction in terms have taken a beating in recent years. The Economist, in an article entitled, “Unleashing the laws of war” published last year, gave a sad summary of fate in practice of these peculiar norms in an era of insurgencies, terrorism, ethnic violence, and superpower techno-war.

Yet much of the world continues to expand and refine the laws of war. I’m speaking now of the Hague and Geneva conventions, those legal limits to the conduct of war (jus in bello) — there are also legal justifications for engaging in war (jus ad bellum), something else again. The two Hague Conferences (1899 and 1907) and the various Geneva Conventions and Protocols (1864 to 2005) comprise something like 30 documents (most of which can be had via Yale’s Avalon Project in the Laws of War section). Even the official titles of some of these documents are enough to inspire a shudder of disgust:

When today we hear about the applicability or a violation of “the Geneva Convention,” it’s the four conventions of 1949 and the six subsequent protocols and annexes that are meant. The International Committee of the Red Cross website has the text of these along with commentary on each. These relate, among other things, to:

One source of concern is the fact that although there are 194 state parties to the original 1949 convention, there are only 165 to the 1977 Protocol and 53 to the 2005 Protocol. Though the United States is a party to the 2005 Protocol, it is not a party to the more important 1977 Protocol, though it is a signatory (along with Iran, Pakistan, and Morocco). Canada is a party to both of these protocols.

It might be a fruitful exercise today if we all read the text of just one of these documents, not as lawyers, perhaps, seeking out ambiguities and arguments, but simply as citizens of the world, seeking ever more humane conduct, even during war.

Comments are closed.