In the last few weeks, something happened that will change our perception of the Russia- Ukraine war: The Bucha massacres. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in brutal ways – in some cases, bodies have even been found with their hands tied and with signs of execution on their heads – for no apparent real reason other than to humiliate the Ukrainian population through a diabolical display of violence.
These unforgivable acts built a bridge of emotions and compassion between what is happening in Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
A war crime is an act that violates the law of armed conflict. Behind every war crime perpetrated, there is a war criminal. But who decides the rules of the game?
The birth of international humanitarian law
It was Wednesday, August 22nd, 1864, when on the initiative of Henry Dunant, founding father of the Red Cross, a diplomatic conference was held in Geneva in which 11 European states plus the United States laid the first stone to build what is now called International Humanitarian Law.
But what is the International Humanitarian Law exactly?
According to the International Committee of Red Cross, the International humanitarian law is “the set of rules of international law concerning the protection of so-called war victims or victims of armed conflicts.”
Rules were formulated to protect those not involved in the war and to place limits on the use of weapons, means, or methods of warfare.
In short, it was decided to give rules to war.
Leaping ahead 85 years, to arrive, again in Geneva, at the four conventions signed in 1949 aimed at defining the conditions of wounded, sick, prisoners of war, and civilians, rules implemented by subsequent protocols additions of 1977 and 2005 that define the dimensions and boundaries within which humanitarian law operates and binds the subjects.
Like any self-respecting treaty or agreement, the agreements signed contain several articles and numerous clauses ready to annihilate even the bravest of readers.
For this reason, what I propose here is the most accurate synthesis possible to allow the reader to boast of knowledge in front of their beer mates.
One of the fundamental principles of IHL is the principle of distinction between military and civilian objectives, the consequence of which is the mirroring principle of immunity for the civilian population.
Fighting forces must always distinguish between population and civilian objects on one hand, and military objectives on the other. Neither the civilian population, nor individual citizens or civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, water, and electricity supply systems should be the target of military attacks. Everything civilians need for their daily life.
Weapons that inflict unnecessary suffering or risk indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, such as cluster bombs, banned by a 2008 UN Convention, and chemical or biological weapons banned by specific conventions.
Nuclear weapons are legitimate if used as a deterrent only by the 5 member countries of the United Nations Security Council (USA, Russia, China, Great Britain, France)
It is also prohibited to shoot a person or vehicle displaying a white flag, as it indicates an intention to surrender or a willingness to deal. In both cases, people under the protection of the Red Cross or the white flag must remain neutral; they cannot, therefore, carry out hostile actions and acts of violence or carry weapons or ammunition, as this constitutes a violation of the code of war.
It is also a violation of the rules to take military action without respecting precise rules, such as wearing one’s uniform or any other easily identifiable symbol and carrying weapons insight. It is forbidden to wear the enemy uniform and impersonate a soldier on the other side, with the aim of fighting and capturing hostages.
These rules are monitored by international bodies such as the UN and the Red Cross, and the international community can institute trials and inflict sentences through the International Court, despite being an extremely difficult and complex subject.
Having explored the conditions of the conflict, it is legitimate to wonder if it makes sense to assign rules to war in a context of such violence. Maybe, some of us simply wonder:
Does war make sense?
Actually, it depends.
It depends on the meaning we give to the term war.
As Saba Bazargan-Forward, professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego explains in the article “The rules of war are absurd, but necessary” the term war can have two meanings:
«The sense that refers to the conflict as a whole, and the sense that refers to a particular side in a conflict. In colloquial discourse, we often switch between these senses without even noticing it.»
This means that when we view Russia at war as Ukraine’s aggressor, we view it as a morally unjust war. But if we change the order of nations, and think of Ukraine at war to defend itself against aggression, in this case, most likely, we will consider it a morally just war. This means that, in this case, war makes sense.
And it is precisely here that the importance of international humanitarian law returns: considering the right to defence of Ukrainians does not mean that their soldiers, in the event of an advantage over the adversary, are given the opportunity to inflict unnecessary violence.
A concept that aims to empower all parties involved by avoiding extending the right of defence to unnecessary violence.
But is it so? Can we expect Bucha’s deaths to have been caused by unwanted accidents? Can we expect the horrors experienced by the eyes of the indirect victims of war to allow them to recognize the limit of violence not to be overcome, especially against those who triggered that war?