General Article Laws of war

Topic Selected: War and Conflict
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What exactly is a war crime? Who decides what is legal during a conflict? How are suspects brought to justice? This short briefing cannot give full answers. But it is a useful start to understanding the principles of what are sometimes called the laws of war or armed conflict, and sometimes international humanitarian law.

Who says what is or isn’t legal in war?

Modern-day laws mostly date back to the middle of the 19th century, with significant developments and additions throughout the 20th century. They are described more fully below. But it would be wrong to think that having rules about war is a modern invention.

Ancient civilisations had codes of war. The Roman republic thought about what was and wasn’t a ‘Just War’. The chivalric codes of medieval Europe may have been romanticised by later writers, yet they clearly indicate that medieval knights had a sense of the ethics of fighting. Ideas about the correct treatment of prisoners and behaviour during siege warfare, for examp...

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