war, laws of

war, laws of,

in international lawinternational law,
body of rules considered legally binding in the relations between national states, also known as the law of nations. It is sometimes called public international law in contrast to private international law (or conflict of laws), which regulates private legal
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, rules and principles regulating an armed conflict between nations. These laws are designed to minimize the destruction of life and property, to proscribe cruel treatment of noncombatants and prisoners of warprisoner of war,
in international law, person captured by a belligerent while fighting in the military. International law includes rules on the treatment of prisoners of war but extends protection only to combatants.
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, and to establish conditions under which the belligerents may consult with one another. To mitigate the effects of insurrections and civil wars, established governments often recognize the belligerencybelligerency
, in international law, status of parties legally at war. Belligerency exists in a war between nations or in a civil war if the established government treats the insurgent force as if it were a sovereign power.
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 of domestic opponents and conduct conflicts with them according to the laws of war.

See also neutralityneutrality,
in international law, status of a nation that refrains from participation in a war between other states and maintains an impartial attitude toward the belligerents. Neutrality is not to be confused with neutralism, or nonalignment, under international law.
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; seas, freedom of theseas, freedom of the,
in international law, the principle that outside its territorial waters (see waters, territorial) a state may not claim sovereignty over the seas, except with respect to its own vessels.
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.

Development

In the Middle Ages the ideals of knighthood restrained some cruelties in warfare, but systematic legal codes did not appear until the 17th cent. The great work of GrotiusGrotius, Hugo
, 1583–1645, Dutch jurist and humanist, whose Dutch name appears as Huigh de Groot. He studied at the Univ. of Leiden and became a lawyer when 15 years old. In Dutch political affairs Grotius supported Oldenbarneveldt against Maurice of Nassau.
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, De jure belli ac pacis [on the laws of war and peace] (1625) and the works of Vattel had much influence in introducing humane practices. Detailed international treaties governing war are mostly a product of the 19th and 20th cent. The Declaration of Paris (1856; see Paris, Declaration ofParis, Declaration of,
1856, agreement concerning the rules of maritime warfare, issued at the Congress of Paris. It was the first major attempt to codify the international law of the sea.
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), the accords concluded at the Hague ConferencesHague Conferences,
term for the International Peace Conference of 1899 (First Hague Conference) and the Second International Peace Conference of 1907 (Second Hague Conference). Both were called by Russia and met at The Hague, the Netherlands.
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 (1899, 1907), and the Geneva Conventions (1864, 1906, 1929, 1949) are the main bodies of formulated law.

Modern Laws of War

There is no convention on the laws of war to which all the major powers of the world have acceded, and many conventions provide that their terms shall be inoperative if any of the belligerents is not a signatory or if an enemy commits a violation. Despite such provisions, many nations have adopted the laws of war, and the conditions of warfare have undoubtedly been ameliorated, particularly in the treatment of prisoners and the consideration shown to the sick and wounded. The care of the sick and the wounded is facilitated by making medical personnel noncombatants and by clearly marking hospitals and similar installations, thus sparing them from attack. Conventions restricting the use of certain weapons probably have not materially mitigated the horrors of war. For the most part, only those weapons that are of limited military use, e.g., poison gas, have been effectively banned, while efforts to prohibit militarily effective weapons, e.g., atomic weapons and submarine mines, have not succeeded.

The laws of war have had as their objective the protection of civilian populations by limiting all action to the military. A distinction was made between combatants and noncombatants, the former being defined in terms of traditional military units. Thus combatants must have a commander responsible for subordinates, wear a fixed and recognizable emblem, carry arms openly, and follow the laws of war. But the development of aerial bombing in World War I and of guerrilla forces dependent on civilians has tended to make all enemy territory part of the theater of operations. New practices and categories have yet to be worked out to protect civilian centers adequately.

Civilians in territory occupied by the enemy are, however, supposed to be entitled to certain protections. There may not be imprisonment without cause, and fines may not be levied upon a whole civilian population for individual offenses. Private property also receives limited protection, and it may not be confiscated for military use unless fair compensation is paid. Special rules govern such actions against property as the taking of a prizeprize,
in maritime law, the private property of an enemy that a belligerent captures at sea. For the capture of the vessel or cargo to be lawful it must be made outside neutral waters and by authority of the belligerent.
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 at sea or in port, the confiscation of contrabandcontraband,
in international law, goods necessary or useful in the prosecution of war that a belligerent may lawfully seize from a neutral who is attempting to deliver them to the enemy. The term is sometimes also applied to the goods carried into a country by smuggling.
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, and the use of the blockadeblockade,
use of naval forces to cut off maritime communication and supply. Blockades may be used to prevent shipping from reaching enemy ports, or they may serve purposes of coercion. The term is rarely applied to land sieges.
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. Property destroyed in the course of action against the enemy is, of course, not compensable. Places of religious, artistic, or historical importance should not be attacked unless there is military need.

No direct diplomatic relations exist between belligerents, but neutral diplomats are often given custody of property in enemy territory and are entrusted with negotiations. In the field of combat, passports, safe-conducts, and flags of truce permit consultations between opposing commanders. Hostilities may even be totally suspended by an armistice, which is often the prelude to surrender.

Violations of the laws of war have probably occurred in all major conflicts; a nation confident of victory will frequently not be deterred even by fear of reprisals. After World War II the military and civilian leaders of the Axis Powers who were responsible for violations were tried for war crimeswar crimes,
in international law, violations of the laws of war (see war, laws of). Those accused have been tried by their own military and civilian courts, by those of their enemy, and by expressly established international tribunals.
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, and some Americans were tried for war crimes in the Vietnam War (see My Lai incidentMy Lai incident
, in the Vietnam War, a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers. On Mar. 16, 1968, a unit of the U.S. army Americal division, led by Lt. William L.
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).

Bibliography

See M. Greenspan, The Modern Law of Land Warfare (1959) and The Soldier's Guide to the Laws of War (1969); S. D. Bailey, Prohibitions and Restraints in War (1972); J. F. Witt, Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History (2012).