"Baneful is this scourge of humanity called war."
The Middle East, always a cauldron of armed conflict, was once again on the brink of a major armed conflict with the assassination of a top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the retaliatory missile attacks by Iran on US military bases inside Iraq. Although both Iran and the United States backed down and lowered their rhetoric, the tension remains. And ironically with the release this week of the so-called peace plan—what Trump has described as the deal of the century—this tension has been heightened. Among others, the plan has been rejected by the Palestinians and most other actors in the region.
The possibility of war in the region gives an occasion to recall the international rules of war also known as international humanitarian law especially so since many are questioning whether or not the US was justified in its action to assassinate a top general of a sovereign country. Moreover, President Trump himself earlier tweeted that the US would target sites that were "important to Iran and the Iranian culture" if Iran retaliates.
The assassination of Soleimani came in the aftermath of the seven-year Syrian civil war and the defeat of the Islamic State. The long-drawn Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS was a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions with combatants from all sides committing all sorts of war crimes and savagery without regard to any civilized rules of combat. The ISIS may have been temporarily defeated but there is yet no guarantee that they will not resurrect as the roots of their emergence remain.
The rules of war or international humanitarian law (as it is known formally) are a set of international rules which is a branch of international law that sets out what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict. These rules are anchored in the fundamental principles of humanity, of distinction between civilians and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives, of proportionality, and of military necessity.
The rationale behind this set of rules is to maintain some humanity in armed conflicts, save lives, reduce suffering and limit the effects of armed conflict. The core of this IHL can be found in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 as developed and supplemented by two further agreements: the Additional Protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts. Thus, there is the Geneva Conventions for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field, the amelioration of the condition of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea, and treatment of prisoners of war, the protocols that lays down the rules governing the conduct of combatants during hostilities or the protection of the civilian population against the effects of hostilities.
There is also the Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war including its additional protocols which includes treatment of civilians in hostile territories and the population in occupied territories.
There are also rules on the declaration of war such as Section III of the Hague Convention of 1907 requiring hostilities to be preceded by a reasoned declaration of war or by an ultimatum with a conditional declaration of war as well as the United Nations Charter (1945) specifically article 2(4), prohibiting “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Or Article 51 of the Charter which states: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” Violations of these laws can be regarded as war crimes cognizable by the International Criminal Court created under the 1998 Rome Statute. This was applied in two recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Thus, even the most powerful country like the United States must obey these rules when waging war so that Mr. Trump, and the Iran government for that matter, cannot just target cultural sites or strike at civilians and other non-combatants, which, as we discussed above, are in violation of international humanitarian law and amounts to war crimes.
In a world constantly in turmoil with war increasingly being utilized and justified as a necessary tool of state policy, states and non-state actors need to strictly follow some rules if only to put some semblance of civility in an otherwise uncivilized way of resolving differences. Surely, baneful is this scourge of humanity called war.
Facebook: Dean Tony La Vina