What were the rules of World War II

There are rules in war - the 1949 Geneva Conventions

The development of international humanitarian law is closely linked to the experience of devastating atrocities of war. For example, the chairman of the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva in 1949, Max Petitpierre, said that in times of war it was pointless to conclude agreements between warring parties: the war must be settled in peacetime. While the first conventions from 1864, 1907 and 1929 primarily aimed at protecting wounded soldiers, prisoners of war and castaways, the protection of the civilian population was only included in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The experience of the Second World War had clearly shown that additional protective provisions were necessary.

To date, 196 states have ratified the Geneva Conventions. Due in particular to changing weapons technologies, they have been expanded again and again, for example through the agreements of the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907 or the two additional protocols of 1977. In the course of the so-called New Wars, the question of the topicality of the Geneva Agreements also arises - and thus also one new challenge.

“New Wars”: On the Change in Forms of Armed Violence

"The circumstances of the post-war consolidation are one of the factors that determine how likely a war will flare up again," writes peace researcher Michael Brzoska. The founding of the United Nations and its goal of “maintaining world peace and security” (Article 1 of the UN Charter) can, against this background, be described as a relative success. Since then, conflicts between member states, as in the world wars, have not been repeated. The classic interstate war of modern times, which sought to postpone territorial sovereignty, was mediated from then on within the framework of the United Nations.

The New Wars, however, with their economies of violence and asymmetries, among other things, are domestic wars that tend to end with a “negotiated peace or a lessening of violence”, less often with a military victory on one side, writes Manuel Halbauer. "War" can then actually no longer be spoken of. This in turn makes formal compliance with the Geneva Conventions difficult. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is aware of this challenge. In 1949 the international community assigned her the role of “guardian” of international humanitarian law. "Today most of the conflicts take place within cities," says Helen Durham, director of the ICRC, in the Arte report "The Red Lines". More parties with “irregular armies” are also involved. If these groups adhered to the international agreements, this would give them legitimacy. But states have no interest in that, according to Durham.

Ukraine and Syria - current dilemmas

On March 27, 2014, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine”. It reaffirmed the internationally recognized state borders of Ukraine and also declared the Crimean referendum on independence on March 16, 2014 to be invalid. But an end to the conflict is not in sight, also because irregular groups such as pro-Russian separatists are involved who fight without a formal state background.

Recently, the UN Security Council observed how Western states and Russia accused each other of “hypocrisy and double standards”. Previously, Ukraine and its supporters had launched a military operation in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk. In the Security Council, Russia then referred to the Geneva Agreement, which does not allow wars of aggression. In the Arte report, on the other hand, Ukrainian soldiers have their say, who carry parts of the Geneva Accords with them in their military ID cards, the “Code of Conduct for Combatants”. A Ukrainian soldier said that international law would be difficult to implement if no one knew where the enemy came from.

In the Syrian conflict, this problem is also being addressed by the non-state military. There the armed opposition, for example the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is trained in international humanitarian law by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Afaq Academy. The NGO has been organizing workshops and seminars for military units since 2013 - a task to which the states actually committed themselves by signing the Geneva Conventions. With the training provided by the Afaq Academy, non-governmental groups such as the FSA voluntarily accept compliance with international humanitarian law. However, this does not mean that they will become an official party to the Geneva Conventions.

The Montreux Document

Another challenge lies in the involvement of private military and security companies, which has been increasingly observed in armed conflicts since 1990. For these reasons, the ICRC initiated the Montreux Document, which was passed by 17 states in 2008 - but without any binding international law. Among other things, it contains “best practices” for regulating private security companies, for example the issuing of licenses and measures for supervision and liability. According to a 2009 study by the ICRC, international humanitarian law does not explicitly prohibit civilians from participating in hostile conflicts. Yet they do not have the same rights as combatants. They can be held accountable for their actions under national law. This means, firstly, that they enjoy full protection as civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law and, secondly, they are individually responsible for complying with the rules of international law.

Topicality of the Geneva Conventions

Despite the change in the conflicts, the Geneva Accords have not lost their relevance. “Yet people in conflict fail to act with all due humanity,” says Helen Durham. For this reason, it is to be expected that new conflicts will have to flare up again, including new technologies such as autonomous weapons, in order to wrest new agreements - and thus new rules - from the warring parties in times of peace.

Dominik Schlett