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If War Comes To You

Laws Of War

Throughout the three films the characters come face to face with the laws of war. Explore the scenes that highlight these topics to learn more.

Limits to War

When Ada meets Lara

Many people think war is only chaos. But since ancient times there have been efforts to lessen the harmful effects of war and to preserve human dignity.

So yes, there are Limits to War, as it says on Lara’s sweatshirt!

The main rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) – also called the laws of war or the law of armed conflict – can be found in the universally ratified 1949 Geneva Conventions, as well as in their Additional Protocols. IHL is a practical set of rules aiming to strike a balance between legitimate military action and humanity. IHL is neutral. It recognises that wars will be fought and imposes rules to lessen human suffering, especially for civilians and people not or no longer taking part in the fighting (regardless of the reason for the conflict, and who is right or wrong).

That’s why it is important, as Ada puts it, to make people aware of those rules, and to work towards their respect, at all levels.

Learn more about the Limits to War by exploring some of the scenes in the film, and by having a look at 10 things the rules of war do and What Are the Rules of War.

Fighting by the Rules

Soldiers’ discussion

The laws of war come into action as soon as war breaks out. From that moment it is accepted that humanitarian considerations must limit the way war can be waged.

Some of the main principles include only targeting those taking part in the fighting and military objectives and forbidding the targeting of civilians and civilian objects. When fighting, combatants can’t use any more force than necessary.

It is illegal to use certain weapons, and using some weapons is restricted. For example, those which cannot be directed at a specific military target due to their indiscriminate nature. Weapons designed to have a wide impact area can strike civilians beyond the military target, for example if they are used in populated areas, such as the weapon that led to the death of Sofia.

IHL includes many rules to protect people not taking part in the fighting, especially the wounded and sick, and people who have been detained. Civilians and their property must be spared as much as possible, and objects essential to their survival, such as water supplies or livestock, should be protected.

IHL helps to facilitate humanitarian access, protect health and aid workers, and includes many other rules to maintain humanity in armed conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering.

These rules are important for everyone, from those who plan attacks to those who carry them out. Our soldier reading his cards, making sure he understands his responsibilities, and the officer at the checkpoint, making sure his soldiers are obeying the rules.

Learn more about the key principles of international humanitarian law or explosive weapons in urban areas.

Protecting Civilians

Military briefing

The rules of war forbid attacks against civilians and civilian objects. So, parties must make it clear that they are takingpart in the fighting, for example by wearing uniforms, to show that they are not civilians. They must take all necessary measures to avoid civilian harm at all times. And that’s not all! Civilians should always be treated humanely, and must not be subjected to mistreatment or assault, including sexual violence. Spreading terror amongst the population is prohibited. Stealing or damaging civilian property is also forbidden.

It is also important to remember that civilians can lose their protection if (and for such time) they take a direct part in fighting.

It might be hard to wrap your head around the fact that there are rules in war. The rules of war help to protect civilians and every violation that can be avoided makes a difference. Can you imagine what the consequences would be if there were no rules at all?

Let’s not forget that conflicts affect people directly but also indirectly, such as when lots of people have to leave their homes, which is one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time. Many people either leave the areas of hostilities and remain within their country (internally displaced persons) or leave and try to seek asylum in another country, requesting protection as refugees. In all cases, displaced persons can lose their independence, be or feel unsafe, lack access to essential services and be at heightened risk of violence, and must be taken care of. If they leave their country, they are still protected by International Human Rights Law and Refugee Law, to ensure respect for their dignity.

Learn more about how fighters can reduce civilian harm in urban warfare

Experience the challenges of fleeing your home in Brothers Across Borders

Protecting Civilian Objects

Fighting near the museum

The principle of distinction means that military attacks can only be directed against military objectives. Therefore, civilian buildings, such as houses and schools, must be spared as much as possible, and the military must also try to avoid using these types of locations for military purposes, as well as avoiding placing military objects near to them, or in densely populated areas. Remember though, if a civilian object is used for a military purpose, it will lose its protection from attack.

Did you notice the symbols on the map in the military briefing?

The laws of war contain specific rules protecting certain categories of buildings and objects, and there are special signs to show that they are protected.

These include cultural property of great importance to the heritage of every people (museums and other monuments, historic buildings, or archaeological sites, as well as works of art and important collections of books or archives), and works and installations containing dangerous forces (like dams, dykes, and nuclear electrical generating stations).

Civil defence organisations (government or civilian) which are asked by a government to carry out humanitarian tasks in armed conflict are also protected by a special sign. They must be respected and protected and are permitted to carry out the civil defence tasks except in case of military necessity.

Distinctive emblem for cultural property

International special sign for works and installations containing dangerous forces

International distinctive sign of civil defence

Learn more about the consequences of targeting civilian objects.

On a related topic, did you know that the natural environment is also protected in times of war? Have a look at the Guidelines on protection of natural environment in armed conflict and How nature is protected during conflict?

Protecting Combatants

Soldier’s flashbacks

There have always been rules protecting combatants. The idea is simple: As soon as a person is no longer taking part in the fighting (if they are wounded, sick, or detained), they are no longer a threat, are no longer a target, and must be treated humanely.

All parties must collect and care for wounded and sick combatants without distinction, and not prevent anyone from doing so. It is forbidden to attack them or those who collect or care for them.

If detained, combatants are protected against any act of violence, intimidation, insults, and public curiosity. They are also entitled to humane conditions, including accommodation, food, clothing, hygiene, and medical care. The law allows them to communicate with their family. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement helps with this by  Restoring Family Links activities.

Ways of fighting and methods of war are also not unlimited. For over a hundred years humanity has banned the use of weapons which are considered unnecessarily cruel, such as poison, exploding bullets, chemical and biological weapons and weapons that injure by fragments which cannot be located by x-rays. The reason for this is that these weapons cause needless injuries or unnecessary suffering for no military purpose.

This reasoning goes back to the main purpose of international humanitarian law – to reduce the suffering caused by armed conflict, and to limit attacks to weakening the forces of the enemy, balancing military necessity with humanitarian considerations.

Learn more about protected persons including combatants.

Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal Emblems

Distribution point

In times of war, the red cross, red crescent, and red crystal emblems mean don’t shoot! They show that the person or object displaying the emblem must be protected. To be effective, everyone must understand the meaning of the emblems and have trust in them.

These emblems are used by the military medical services, to show that they are neutral, and are non-combatants. This sign is especially important to set them apart from other members of the armed forces, who may be attacked.

Hospitals and other medical facilities, whether civilian or military, as long as they are strictly used for medical purposes, are specially protected in war. Some may display the red cross, red crescent, and red crystal emblems.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which has a special role in helping people affected by armed conflict, also uses these emblems.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is a neutral,  independent humanitarian organisation. Its work is based on the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to help people affected by conflict and armed violence and promoting the laws that protect victims of war. The ICRC also visits prisoners-of-war and civilian detainees to inspect their conditions.

National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which each have a responsibility to help vulnerable people within their own borders, in peace and in war, and to protect and support those in crisis worldwide.

Red Cross logo

Red Cross

Red Crescent logo

Red Crescent

Red Crystals logo

Red Crystal

Humanitarian Principles in Action

In the ambulance

The laws of war go hand-in-hand with principled humanitarian action. The principles and rules of IHL allows humanitarian actors to help to limit the effects of war. Humanitarian work on the ground in armed conflict is guided by humanitarian principles which allow aid workers access to people affected. This work includes protecting civilians and people who have been detained, assisting the wounded and sick, and promoting compliance with IHL.

So that they can access everyone who needs help, especially in war where people take sides, it is especially important for humanitarian workers to be neutral. This means, like Helen’s boss said, staying out of the fighting and staying out of political, racial, religious, or other controversies.

They need to be completely trusted by all sides, and by the people affected, to do their job as well as possible.

Humanitarian workers also follow other principles. They give assistance impartially, to whoever needs it the most. They also stay independent from governments and other organisations. And above all, they always keep in mind their humanitarian purpose, to save lives and reduce suffering in a way that respects and restores human dignity.

Learn more about humanitarian principles in action and the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The Importance of Education in Times of War

Celebrating the protection of schools.

Can you imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t go to school?  It might be fun at first, but…

While schools are not specially protected, in the way that cultural property is, schools are of course civilian buildings that should not be attacked. Education can help to protect children and young people from death, injury, and exploitation. It can provide routine, stability and a place of safety and support, to help to deal with the impact of armed conflict and can help to link young people with other essential services. Education can contribute to peace by helping us to understand what led to war, who was involved, and learning tolerance and how to solve conflicts in a peaceful way.

The disruption to education caused by armed conflict and other violence has far-reaching impacts – limiting children and young people’s future opportunities and choices.

Recognising that it is very important that education should continue, even during wartime, some countries have agreed to some extra guidelines, to help limit the effect of armed conflict on students, teachers, and education. Remember the order by the government not to use schools for military purposes?

Learn more about the Safe Schools Declaration

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