With the recent alarming armed conflicts dominating the news, such as that in the Middle East and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more and more individuals and nations are looking towards the rules and laws laid out to govern such devastatingly violent events. International laws governing war, often referred to as international humanitarian law (IHL) or the laws of armed conflict, represent a significant milestone in the global pursuit of peace, security, and the protection of human rights. These laws have a long history, evolving over centuries to address the horrors of armed conflict.
The origins of international laws governing war can be traced back as far as civilizations began to encounter one another. However, the modern framework for IHL emerged in the mid-19th century with the adoption of the first Geneva Convention in 1864. The Convention aimed to protect wounded and sick soldiers on the battlefield, and led to the creation of the Red Cross. Subsequent treaties, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, further refined the rules governing armed conflicts. The devastating World Wars of the 20th century reinforced the need for a more comprehensive and universal framework for IHL.
Responding to ever evolving warfare, international laws governing war have morphed into a complex web of treaties and customary rules. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949, along with their Additional Protocols of 1977, form the cornerstone of IHL. They address the protection of civilians, wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, and emphasize a number of principles. One principle is distinction, which obliges parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to avoid targeting civilians. Another principle is proportionality, which requires that the expected military advantage of an attack must outweigh its potential harm to civilians and civilian objects. An addition to the evolving world of wartime governance is the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC, established in 2002, prosecutes individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, further strengthening the implementation of IHL.
While international laws governing war have made substantial progress, numerous challenges persist. Compliance with these laws remains uneven, and enforcement can be difficult, especially in conflicts involving non-state actors. There are debates about the adequacy of existing IHL rules, particularly in the face of emerging technologies such as autonomous weapons. Additionally, achieving accountability for violations remains a challenge, as not all states accept the jurisdiction of international courts like the ICC.
This week’s Current Events resources examine how the international community has designed laws and protocols to shape the scope of war. The resources shared provide information and context around the treaties, laws, and general behaviors that govern the jurisdictions and applications of war-related actions.
Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:
- How does international human rights law apply to armed conflicts?
- What are the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols?
- How have the Geneva Conventions been expanded upon and in what ways may they need to be updated?
- What are the challenges and considerations of charging a person, organization, or nation with war crimes?
- What role, if any, does the International Criminal Court play in ensuring war crimes do not happen?
- In your opinion, should the carve out for collateral civilian casualties be made in international laws governing war? Explain.
- In your opinion, what, if any, role should the United Nations play in trying to end pre-existing armed conflicts? Explain.
Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and Laws of War Vocabulary
Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content
Prosecuting War Criminals Universally, In and Around War(s), Geneva Academy
No Specific and Tangible Evidence, “To the Best of My Ability”, The National WW2 Museum
Why Proving War Crimes is Difficult and Rare, The Daily, New York Times
Foreign Relations, Cornell Law School
“War Crimes, United Nations
Just War, International Law, Britannica
Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, Cornell Law School
How International Law Applies to War, and Why Hamas and Israel are Both Alleged to Have Broken It, Associated Press, October 17, 2023
Israel-Hamas war: Outrage across the world over Gaza hospital strike that killed hundreds, Le Monde, October 18, 2023
The Rules of War and Human Rights in the Israel-Hamas War, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health, October 12, 2023
Israel, Gaza and the Laws of War, The New York Times, October 12, 2023
What are the laws of war, and how do they apply to the Israel-Gaza conflict?, CBS News, October 16, 2023
What are the rules of war? And how do they apply to Israel’s actions in Gaza?, ABC News, October 13, 2023
Experts say Hamas and Israel are committing war crimes in their fight, AP News, October 13, 20223
The ICC prosecutor needs to break his silence on Israel-Palestine, Aljazeera, October 12, 2023
Gaza Hospital Tragedy Escalates War Risk, No Matter Who’s to Blame, Washington Post, October 18, 2023
We owe it to humanity to see the rules of war are observed – no matter how tough a test the Israel-Hamas conflict proves, The Guardian, October 18, 2023
The Wirz Trial: A Mock Trial Lesson Plan Examining the Laws of War, National Parks Service, United States of America
War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Canada ALPHA (Association for Learning & Preserving the History of WW2 in Asia)
Confronting Crimes Against Humanity, United States Institute of Peace
Bell Ringer: Prosecuting War Crimes, C-SPAN Classroom
Rules of War, British Red Cross
Is There Any Such Thing as a Just War?, PBS, Thirteen
Resources for Younger Students:
Geneva Convention, Britannica Kids
Treaties: Lesson Plan, Academy for Social Change
Introducing Explorers for Global Goals, World’s Largest Lesson, UNICEF