Laws of war
The laws of war define the the 'proper' conduct of warfare. They consist of
rules intended to help minimize brutality toward civilians and prisoners of
war, as well as rules making a future peace easier to achieve. The Geneva
conventions provide a widely-accepted expression of the laws of war.
Well-known examples of such laws include the prohibition on attacking
doctors or ambulances displaying a Red Cross. It is also prohibited to fire
at a person or vehicle bearing a white flag, since that indicates an intent
to surrender or a desire to communicate. In either case, the persons
protected by the Red Cross or white flag are expected to maintain
neutrality, and may not engage in warlike acts.
Other examples of the laws of war address the acceptance of surrender and
the treatment of prisoners of war, the avoidance of atrocities, the
prohibition on deliberately attacking civilians, and the prohibition of
certain inhumane weapons. Impersonating soldiers of the other side by
wearing the enemy's uniform is also strictly forbidden, as is the taking of hostages.
During conflict, punishment for violating the laws of war may consist of a
specific, deliberate and limited violation of the laws of war in reprisal.
Soldiers who break the laws of war lose all protections. For example, in
World War II during the Battle of the Bulge, German SS troops put on
American uniforms and impersonated American troops in order to surprise and
kill American soldiers behind their own lines. Some of these Germans were
captured and immediately executed even though they had surrendered. This did
not constitute an atrocity according to the laws of war; the SS troops had
lost all protections of the laws of war by violating the laws of war.
Spies and terrorists are not protected by the laws of war; they are subject
to civilian laws (if any) for their acts and in practice are often subjected
to torture and execution. The laws of war neither approve nor condemn such
acts, which fall outside their scope. Countries that have signed the UN
Convention Against Torture have committed themselves not to torture captured
After a conflict has ended, persons who have committed atrocities may be
held individually accountable for war crimes through process of law.