Rules and Customs of War

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rules and Customs of War


in international law, the rules of waging war, usually established by multilateral agreements among states. The rules and customs are intended to eliminate the most brutal methods of waging war and to protect the civilian population in areas of military action. They also regulate relations among warring states and between warring and neutral states. The rules and customs of war are supposed to be observed in any armed conflict; they are also compulsory for the UN if that organization uses armed forces in accordance with the UN Charter to prevent or stop acts of aggression.

The most important international agreements that codify the rules of ground, naval, and to some extent air warfare are the Hague conventions and declarations of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons, the Geneva Convention of 1949 protecting the victims of war, and the Hague Convention of 1954 protecting objects of cultural value. Not all the rules and customs of war have been codified in international agreements and documents; some of them have become obsolete and do not reflect the present-day level of development of military technology. In all cases, however, the warring parties and the civilian population are under the protection and operation of generally recognized customs and of common principles of present-day international law that are intended to make warfare more humane. One common principle of international law is that the use of weapons that cause massive human fatalities is not permitted. This proposition is contained in the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868, the 1874 Declaration of the Brussels Conference, the Hague conventions and declarations of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and the Declaration on Prohibiting Use of Nuclear Weapons for Purposes of War, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Nov. 24, 1961.

The rules and customs of war regulate primarily the rights and obligations of the warring sides—the beginning of the war and its legal consequences; the procedure for waging military action; the ways, means, and methods of inflicting damage on the enemy; the legal status of combatants and noncombatants; the legal status of the civilian population; the legal status of prisoners of war and the wounded and sick; the legal treatment of property; conditions of military occupation; and the procedure for halting military action and ending the state of war.

Since the transition to a state of war changes conventional relationships among warring states, the rules and customs of war establish that the warring states should assist the personnel of enemy embassies and consulates to leave the country as quickly as possible; protection of the interests of the warring state and its citizens may be entrusted to a third state. Citizens of an enemy state may be restricted in their rights and even interned. Military action is to be carried out only on the territory (land, sea, and air) of the warring states and on the open sea; such action is not to touch the territory of neutral states or neutralized territories and zones.

Prohibitions are established regarding the most brutal means of waging war. Among the weapons that are prohibited are poison and poisoned weapons; weapons, shells, and substances that are capable of causing excessive suffering; and chemical and bacteriological weapons. Restrictions are also established concerning procedures for using types of weapons that are permitted—for example, the attacking and bombarding of undefended cities, settlements, housing, and structures are not permitted. During sieges and bombardments the warring forces are obliged to take all steps to spare, as much as possible, buildings being used for science, art, and religion and civilian and military hospitals, as well as other such buildings, on the condition that these buildings and places are not being used for military purposes at the same time and that they are marked with visible signs. The rules and customs of war provide a number of principles concerning methods of waging military action: it is forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who has surrendered; it is forbidden to destroy or take enemy property except in cases of acute military necessity; it is illegal to use the parliamentary and national flags and military insignia and uniforms of the enemy or the distinguishing signs of medical units.

Some special rules have been established to regulate naval and air warfare. There are no special agreements on questions of using outer space for military purposes, but the existing norms of international law (for example, the 1967 Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) ban the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space and the deployment of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction there (for example the UN resolution of Oct. 17, 1963, which outlaws the placing of nuclear weapons in orbit). The rules and customs of war also regulate the rights and obligations of neutral states.

Violation of the rules and customs of war is considered to be an international crime. The Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 points out that a warring side is obligated to compensate for losses arising from violations of the rules and customs of war and that persons from the armed forces who are guilty of violating the rules and customs of war must be called to account. After World War II (1939–45) the statutes of the Nuremberg and Tokyo international military tribunals, as well as the decisions of these courts, established violation of the rules and customs of war as the gravest international crimes—war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The practices of the imperialist states show that aggressive wars are accompanied by the most flagrant violations of the rules and customs of war and of elementary principles of humanism. During World War II (1939–45), Hitlerite Germany flagrantly violated the elementary norms of international law embodied in the rules and customs of war. These rules are being violated by the United States, which is waging a war of aggression in Indochina.

The USSR and the other socialist countries stand firmly and consistently for strict observance and progressive development of the rules and customs of war.


Romashkin, P. S. Voennye prestupleniia imperializma. Moscow, 1953.
Poltorak, A. I., and L. I. Savinskii. Prestupnaia voina. Moscow, 1968.
Kurs mezhdunarodnogo prava, vol. 5. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.