Law of war  

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"It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets" --Voltaire [...]

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The law of war is a legal term of art that refers to the aspect of public international law concerning acceptable justifications to engage in war (jus ad bellum) and the limits to acceptable wartime conduct (jus in bello or International humanitarian law).

Among other issues, modern laws of war address declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and the treatment of prisoners of war; military necessity, along with distinction and proportionality; and the prohibition of certain weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering.

The law of war is considered distinct from other bodies of law—such as the domestic law of a particular belligerent to a conflict—that may provide additional legal limits to the conduct or justification of war.

Early sources and history

Attempts to define and regulate the conduct of individuals, nations, and other agents in war and to mitigate the worst effects of war have a long history. The earliest known instances are found in the Mahabharata and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

In the Indian subcontinent, the Mahabharata describes a discussion between ruling brothers concerning what constitutes acceptable behavior on a battlefield:

One should not attack chariots with cavalry; chariot warriors should attack chariots. One should not assail someone in distress, neither to scare him nor to defeat him ... War should be waged for the sake of conquest; one should not be enraged toward an enemy who is not trying to kill him.

An example from the Deuteronomy 20:19–20 limits the amount of acceptable collateral and environmental damage:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege: Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.

Also, Deuteronomy 20:10–12, requires the Israelites to make an offer of peace to the opposing party before laying siege to their city.

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.

Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:10–14 requires that female captives who were forced to marry the victors of a war could not be sold as slaves.

In the early 7th century, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, whilst instructing his Muslim army, laid down the following rules concerning warfare:

Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.

Furthermore, Sura Al-Baqara 2:190-193 of the Koran requires that in combat Muslims are only allowed to strike back in self-defence against those who strike against them, but, on the other hand, once the enemies cease to attack, Muslims are then commanded to stop attacking.

In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church also began promulgating teachings on just war, reflected to some extent in movements such as the Peace and Truce of God. The impulse to restrict the extent of warfare, and especially protect the lives and property of non-combatants continued with Hugo Grotius and his attempts to write laws of war.

One of the grievances enumerated in the American Declaration of Independence was that King George III "(...) has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Law of war" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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