• Jonathan Miller

What are the International Humanitarian Laws?

There are two international humanitarian laws: the Geneva Convention and the smaller but just as important Hague Convention. They are somewhat different, but they both relate in the sense of restricting warfare and the treatment of people in war. The conventions have been around for over one hundred years, and have been revised and edited since their conception. Violations of these laws are called war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The first international humanitarian law to be discussed was the Geneva Convention in 1864. In the First Geneva Convention, the treatment of POW's would be discussed. Prisoners of war would have to be medically treated by their captors and could not be killed or tortured. This would help stop the suffering of POW's. Any military or non-military personnel wearing the red cross can't be shot or killed as well.

World War One would be the first major war this convention would really be in effect. This war introduced so many new deadly ways to conduct war, but one of those had to go according to delegates in the Geneva Convention. Biological and chemical warfare would be discussed in a conference in Geneva on June 17, 1925. The delegates would prohibit the use of any form of biological or chemical warfare.

The Second Geneva Convention focuses on maritime warfare (war on sea) and the protection of shipwrecked soldiers. The shipwrecked soldiers have to be cared for by their captors like POW's stated in the First Geneva Convention. Medical staff can't be captured, but other members of said ship could only be held as prisoners of war, and hospital ships a cannot be targeted at all.

In 1949, the Geneva Convention would formally make corporal and collective punishment illegal as a response to the holocaust. In other words, extermination became illegal. Also, the military or government cannot use hostages.

Later in 1977, Apartheid became illegal, meaning that segregation is an official crime against humanity.

All together, the Geneva Convention prohibits

  • The killing and torturing of POW's

  • Attacking medical personnel

  • Biological and chemical warfare

  • The mistreatment of shipwrecked soldiers

  • Attacking hospital ships

  • Extermination of citizens

  • Governmental use of hostages

  • Systematic segregation


The Hague Convention would become the second international humanitarian law in 1899. This law would focus more on how to conduct war in a more humanitarian way.

A major principle that is included in the convention is the prohibition of unnecessary destruction or seizure of an enemy's property. Towns that are defenseless cannot be bombarded, and places of refuge for the sick and wounded can't be bombed if no military operation was running in the same place.

Other principles included in The Hauge Convention would be the acknowledgement of neutral powers; war can't be fought on their land. Merchant ships of hostile forces can't be attacked at sea, and bullets that are capable of changing their form were prohibited in the use of war.

Elements of the First Geneva Convention were also brought into The Hague Convention, like the treatment of POW's and medics.

It might be smaller than the Geneva convention, but it does apply to every nation that signed it. Those would include the powers of the United States, Russia, Britain, and France.

All together, the Hague Convention prohibits:

  • Unnecessary destruction or seizure of enemy property

  • Bombardment of defenseless towns

  • Attacking camps or buildings with sick or wounded (if no military operations are running there)

  • War on neutral land

  • Attacking merchant ships of enemy forces

  • The use of bullets capable of changing original shape