We've had an unfortunate opportunity to learn more about a special area of international law in recent weeks. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, there have been reports of war crimes, and probes by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands into these alleged crimes. 

But what is the law of war? Offically known as "International Humanitarian Law," these laws mean to provide guidance, rules and limits on what is and is not allowed during an armed conflict. That may sound somewhat contradictory, but as we'll see in the brief introduction to the law of war below, these rules have been agreed to universally.

The core documents on which International Humanitarian Law rests were created at the 1949 Geneva Convention. Since entering into force in October of 1950, the Geneva Conventions have been signed by all UN members (and observer countries the Holy See and the State of Palestine), making the Convention applicable worldwide. The conventions cover a series of different and critically important areas of warfare and humanitarian aid, including protecting wounded soldiers and sailors on land and sea (Conventions I & II), Prisoners of War treatment (Convention III), and Civilian Protection (Convention IV).

There are, however, three additional 'protocols' focused on strengthening protection in international conflicts (protocol I), non-international conflicts, i.e. civil wars (protocol II) and the creation of an additional distinctive emblem, the red crysal, that joins the red cross and red crescent (protocol III). Countries across the world have ratified some, all or none of these protocols, with the US only ratifiying protocol III.

Read the full-text of the Geneva conventions (PDF). You can also learn more about other conventions and international efforts at curbing the worst war crimes at:

There are other international treaties that bind countries together, of course. You can review the enormous scope of United Nations treaties here (including some international humanitarian treaties) or dive into Hein Online's Treaty Library, organized to which treaties the US is a signatory or historically. The Hein database also contains the UN treaties if you like all the treaties in one spot! If you really have a lot of time, feel free to review the 1200 page+ Department of Defense manual on the Law of War (PDF).

There are always secondary sources as well. The Law Library has a series of books on international law focused on war through the centuries. The American Society of International Law (ASIL) has an introductory guide to to International Humanitarian Law (PDF), and the Harvard Law Library maintains a brief guide on the subject.

You can also search for law review articles, or even entire journals dedicated to the Law of War, such as:

For a current blog on national security, which can at times focus on the Law of War, check out Lawfare.

The Rules of War are meant to curtail the worst crimes that warfare can create. Understanding how and why they were created is critical for scholars and the general public to better navigate situations like the one in Ukraine. If you are interested in further research on the topic, feel free to contact a Law Librarian - we'll help you get started using the resources listed above and more. In the meantime, let's hope that peace prevails.

Submitted by Turner,Kristopher on April 20, 2022

This article appears in the categories: Law Library