The Rules of War: What do we really know?

Apr 14, 2011

The American Red Cross' Isabelle Daoust was online Thursday April 14, at noon ET, to talk about a recently released survey that found many young Americans are unaware of the rules of war. In a time where there is great conflict abroad, many also believe that more strides should be taken to educate young people before they can vote or enlist in the military, the survey notes.

Have a question about the survey? Wondering how we can better educate America's youth? Ask now and join the discussion.

Hi, my name is Isabelle Daoust. Today we will be talking about the importance of international humanitarian law or IHL for short. The American Red Cross just release some survey results that show that few young Americans know about these rules. Given the number of conflicts today, it's important that we know more about the world around us. Thank you and I look forward to your questions!

Does international humanitarian law apply to terrorist attacks?

Terrorist attacks are outlawed by a number of treaties and rules, including the Geneva Conventions and criminal laws. But IHL would only apply to terrorist attacks if these occur during an armed conflict, that is a war between 2 countries or  an internal armed conflict or civil war. Those who commit terrorist acts should be charged and prosecuted while being afforded due process.

Are there tools available to educate youth on the rules of war?

Yes, please visit for free lessons to include in the classroom. The Red Cross also offers free workshops for teachers who are interested in the rules of war. The Red Cross curriculum is currently being used in all 50 States. For more details, please write us at

As I understand it, the Geneva Conventions explicitly states that it is a crime to even plan a war; is this correct?

The Geneva Conventions do not outlaw wars or the planning of wars. But the Conventions lay out rules to protect those who do not participate in the conflict (civilians) or no longer participate (prisoners, wounded, captured soldiers) and restrict the means and methods of warfare. To learn more visit

Is torture never okay? What are the legal instruments to protect human dignity?

Torture is never OK and is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture and a host of other treaties to which the US is a party. Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him information or a confession.

How are the rules of war enforced?

IHL can be enforced by domestic courts or by international courts like the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Our country has laws to ensure that anybody who commits a violation of IHL is prosecuted.

As an OIF veteran I know a bit out the Geneva Convention and how it applies to me as a service member, but what do you honestly think that the civilians population as a whole need to know about the "Laws" of war when most simply don't care because they think it doesn't affect them?

Thank you for your question. Civilians also need to know about the rules of war as voters and citizens that need to be engage in informed debates about these issues. 4 out of 5 youth expressed interest in learning more about these rules given their relevance. These issues touch many of us as 7 out of 10 youth said in our survey that they have a close friend or relative that is a veteran or serving in the armed forces.

It seems as if having rules for war would tie the hands of our military. What does the US military think of these rules?

Our country and our military have made huge contributions to the development of these rules throughout history, starting with the adoption of the Lieber Code commisioned by President Lincoln in the midst of the American Civil War. The Red Cross works very closely with our military. The military support and  uphold these rules and have worked closely with us in promoting our survey results.

What countries are there that have not signed onto the Geneva Convention? Are they outside the safeguards afforded by the Convention or would they be held to the convention rules?

The Geneva Conventions are universal and have been ratified by every single country in the world. You may be interested to know that Clara Barton, inspired by her tireless work during the American Civil War, advocated for our country to ratify the very first Geneva Convention of 1864.

Why are the rules of war so important?

We need rules to protect human dignity and the vulnerable in armed conflict. These include, women, children, the wounded, and captured soldiers. The rules aim to minimize human suffering through a delicate balancing act between military necessity and humanitarian considerations. Even wars have limits. 

You wrote: "Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him information or a confession." Is it legal to torture as long as it's not used to obtain information or a confession?

No it is never legal to torture. The definition I provided is from the Convention against torture. In common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which has universal application, it is prohibited to torture or to inflict cruel treatment or humiliating or degrading treatment.

If the enemy violates these rules, does that justify the same behavior? It seems as if there would be long term consequences to this type of downward spiral of behavior that would not be worth any the "benefits" from illegal action. What do you think?

The Geneva Conventions are like a code of conduct that we must adhere to in times of conflict regardless of whether the other side respects the rules or not. The Geneva Conventions reflect American and military values, and disciplined troops that follow the rules can better meet their military objectives while minimizing human suffering.

What do we or the young adults need to know about the rules of war that would be applicable in the Libya Civil War where an international organization ie. NATO, has interposed itself?

The on-going conflict in Lybia reminds us of the complex issues raised by war: the plight of civilians having to flee their villages, the impact on children, and so forth. Our Exploring Humanitarian Law curriculum can help high school teachers and their students explore these complex issues and dilemmas at  

Can we practice IHL in our everyday lives, even if we're not in the military or affected by war?

Yes, think of incidents of bullying or harrassement that can they place in our schools. We can start by teaching our youth about respect for human dignity and how we can take action to make a difference. There are lessons that will inspire you in Module 1 at

Hi Isabelle, The earlier question about terrorist attacks made me wonder if you have a definition of a terrorist attack. If an air force knowingly bombs a bunch of civilians it seems ok, but if someone plants an inexpensive low tech bomb that kills civilians it is a terrorist act. Do you have a clear definition of  "terrorist attack"?

Under the Geneva Conventions (ratified by all countries), a terrorist act can include the taking of hostages or deliberately terrorizing the civilian population. Deliberately targeting civilians during armed conflict is also prohibited under the Geneva Conventions.

I wouldn't expect that your findings should come as too much of a shock. Most young Americans have very little awareness or interest in the military, history, or current events. It's also true that a large percentage of Americans have a favorable view of torture. What do you think has changed in the last 20-30 years to cause this?

As our survey shows, youth today seem to have little awareness of the rules of war but at the same time they are hungry for more information on global issues including the Geneva Convention. I find it heartening that the vast majority of young people are eager to learn and the Red Cross has teaching modules that have already been integrated in hundreds of schools around the country.

Thanks to the survey, I learned that the first rules of war adopted by the U.S. were adopted during the Civil War. Can you tell me more about this and about the role of the American Red Cross? Thank you!

During the American Civil War, Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, applied humanitarian principles to her work on the battlefield. Inspired by these experiences, she later advocated for the U.S. Congress to adopt the first Geneva Convention.

The American Red Cross is entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the American public about the importance of these rules. Meanwhile, the United States government, as a party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, is obligated to educate the military about international humanitarian law.

How early should education about rules of war be taught?

Our Red Cross curriculum Exploring Humanitarian Law is designed for youth as young as 13 years old.

The Geneva Convention has not been updated in a relatively long time. It was written for an age when two uniformed militaries squared off on battlefield, often somewhat removed from the metropolitan area. It was created before a world of suicide bombers and terror cells. While the standards work well for nationalized countries then don't seem to fit well when you have a nation such as Iran supplying groups like Hezbollah (or Hamas) or with nations assinating leaders the view as undesirable (like in the Syria/ Lebanon situation).

The rules of international humanitarian law apply to both international and non-international armed conflicts. This is a body of law that evolves constantly. The Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1949 but their additional protocols were adopted in 1977 to address civil wars and internal conflicts. Learn more about these rules and how they apply to conflicts today at

Aren't there different types of war? For example, just wars, wars of aggression, religious wars etc. Though the "rules" for each type may not be clear, they appear to be fundamentally different. In Iraq the U.S. seems to have invented a new category of war though, a War About Nothing, which has led to much confusion. What exactly was it fought for? Everything and nothing, apparently, though the only logical reason for so much death and destruction long ago vanished into thin air. How does one possibly 'rule up' a War About Nothing? In Afghanistan as well, a War To Nowhere, in which the only clear objectives appear to be to kill as many rogue belligerents as possible while running out the clock. Is that really any sort of strategy for war when the casus belli has long since high tailed it to Pakistan? You're guesses are as good as mine.

International Humanitarian Law, also called "jus in bello", is about the rules that apply in war, regardless of the reasons for the war. It is the UN Charter that regulates the use of force, or "jus ad bellum". Whether a war is legal or illegal or just doesn't have an impact on the applicability of IHL.

I did not know the American Red Cross was doing such a great job at educating the American population on international humanitarian law. Can you tell me how I can help and help make a difference? Thank you!

You can become an IHL instructor and teach classes in your community or you can promote the Exploring Humanitarian Law curriculum to local teachers or community college professors. Find out more and write to us at 

This law seems to be established for countries fighting countries. In today's age of terror attacks, it seems poorly defined to address the realities of todays battlefield with soldiers wearing civilian clothes and trying to merge in with the population. Why haven't you address this challenging topic of rogue warriors and how the rules of war define them? Everything you touch so far is a cupcake question.

Civilians that unlawfully take up weapons are unprivileged belligerents. They can be prosecuted for these acts.

The principle of distinction is a pillar of international humanitarian law and fighters must strive to target only military personnel or military objectives. it is not easy to make those decisions in the fog of war but our troops are trained to uphold these rules. Military advisers are also present on the battlefield to inform targeting decisions.

What is the American Red Cross role in carrying out the Rules of War? Why is it important to you?

International humanitarian law is at the foundation of the mission and history of the American Red Cross. One of our roles is to educate Americans about these rules and principles. We have a unique expertise in this subject, and as a neutral, impartial, and humanitarian organization, and by educating American youth we are helping them to make informed decisions.

Why is calling for ethics in war better than just promoting peace?

These goals are not mutually exclusive. The mission of the Red Cross is to alleviate suffering in times of disaster and conflict.

One of the lessons of the Nuremberg trials is that it is the duty of military personnel to refuse to obey an illegal order. How well has this lesson been remembered?

There is a Module in Exploring Humanitarian Law that addresses the issue of commander responsability and refusing to obey illegal orders, based on what happened at My Lai. You can find it in Module 3 at

Thank you for all your questions, please send us more questions at and help spread the word about IHL and our Exploring Humanitarian Law curriculum for high schools. It's free! Best regards, Isabelle

In This Chat
Isabelle Daoust
Isabelle Daoust is currently the manager of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Unit at the American Red Cross, based at National Headquarters in Washington, DC. She is responsible for promoting IHL in schools and universities as well as with other key stakeholders in the United States.
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