War Crimes: Confronting Atrocity in the Modern World

By David Chuter | Go to book overview
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The Law

This chapter addresses issues of international humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict. Put simply, this chapter describes what the law says. I begin by explaining the laws and their origins, then how international treaties and statutes yield specific crimes to be investigated and punished. Finally, I address some of the practical problems to which this body of law gives rise.1

Essentially, international humanitarian law has a twofold purpose: It is intended to protect noncombatants, or those who are not now, or never were, taking part in the fighting; it also limits the methods and means by which the fighting is carried out. Some international humanitarian law is based on international treaties, and some is based on the customs of war. There are two broad divisions within international humanitarian law, although the distinction is now somewhat blurred. Humanitarian law properly defined seeks to protect military personnel who are not, for whatever reason, now taking part in the fighting, as well as civilian noncombatants; this is sometimes referred to as the law of Geneva. In addition, there is the law of war, sometimes referred to as the law of The Hague, which establishes the rights and duties of those actually doing the fighting and limits the methods that can be employed to harm the enemy. There was always some overlap between the two, and the adoption of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions ended any distinction for all practical purposes.

These rules apply to armed conflicts of all kinds. Traditionally, they applied only to so-called international armed conflicts, but today they also apply to noninternational armed conflicts, which are usually taken to be conflicts on the territory of a state between its own armed forces and identifiable armed groups, or between such armed groups fighting each other. The definition and threshold of an armed conflict is very important for the


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War Crimes: Confronting Atrocity in the Modern World


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