FOUNDATION: Unit IV. International Humanitarian Law 2 of 5

The Purpose of International Humanitarian Law

Iraqi girl whose hand was lost
in a landmine explosion

International humanitarian law refers to laws that are concerned with what happens to individuals during warfare. The purpose of international humanitarian law is to preserve a measure of humanity even during conflicts. It does not concern itself with the reasons for war but rather what happens in war. It is jus in bello, or law in war.

States have accepted international humanitarian law because they have accepted that war is inevitable and have chosen to make it more humane. Before the end of World War II, the majority of war’s victims were combatants. Since then, more victims are civilians.

German POW at WWII
Nebraska POW camp

States have agreed to abide by laws of war in part to protect their own people. During World War II, the Nazi Germany treated Allied POWs better than USSR POWs because Germany and the Allies had consented to the 1929 Geneva Convention whereas the USSR had not.

Using various means, the ICRC acts as the guardian of international humanitarian law. It has the right to check on the conditions of detainees (e.g., prisoners of war) in international wars since 1949.

Some of villagers killed at My Lai March 16th, 1968

Most of the implementation of international humanitarian law is undertaken by states through military training to prevent violations and through trials held when violations are suspected. In the US for instance, Lieutenant William Calley was tried and convicted in the 1970s for the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam. In the early part of the 21st century, the US military tried and convicted several lower-ranking US soldiers for abuses of Iraqi prisoners.

Why does humanity need rules of war? Why do all governments and their militaries accept in principle that there should be a law of war?

What happens to a state if the rest of the world perceives that it practices torture? How does this affect the people of that state in peace or in war?

Can abuse be contained or does it tend to spread? Find examples.
ICRC statutes
Treatment of Prisoners of War
PBS: The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Courts-Martial
Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Courts Martial