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Commentary on Laws of War

I recently came across this interesting piece by HRW summarising rukes-of-war issues in Syria; I offer some commentary on that.

First, I interpret the rules-of-war as described as working out the practical needs of war with an effort to preserve the safety of presumably neutral civilians; the combatant-noncombatant distinction is essential, where soldiers will fight-and-kill each other freely when engaged in combat, and outside of that, violence is unacceptable.

I recognise the broad point there, although I believe this distinction is overblown; we need three additional categories (that probably merit distinct treatment):

  • Political leaders that are organising the resources of one of the parties of the conflict in ways designed to aid that conflict
  • Strongly aligned populations
  • Highly nontraditional forces that are only semi-statelikein nature (alternatively, we could recognise a side as this)
I also parse the content as being composed of rules of radicallly different strengths; some acts merit or strongly suggest action, legal or otherwise, while others are just bad or unfortunate.

  • On whether the laws are reciprocal or not, I believe that many of the aspects of conduct of war necessarily are reciprocal to some extent, both in terms of positive and negative deviations from the baseline standard established here; in some past conflicts warring powers would take pauses to bury their dead or even do holidays together, and likewise some of these may have committed atrocities that still served some military or nation purpose in ways that are sufficiently powerful that to fail to respond in kind would be very dangerous; there are some acts that I believe should never happen under any circumstance no matter the asymmetry, but there are acts that I also hold are always unacceptable. Regarding those mentioned in point three, I believe that political leaders, as people who have more actively chosen their side than even the military, are also uniquely vulnerable and are not always owed a right to life or trial. However, like with all people regardless of circumstance, they may neither be tortured nor subject to unacceptable prison conditions. A summary execution, without trial, of a dictator or the family of a monarch may be warranted; it can entirely end a regime or a conflict with the least bloodshed and the most finality, and save a number of lives. The acceptability of this depends on its likely effect though; low-ranking political figures are not as suceptible to this as high-ranking ones. It also should only happen during an active conflict.
  • P4: As noted above, I believe that political leaders that are involved in aggression are potentially more vulnerable (as in the "fair game" sense) than soldiers. and are legitimate targets of attacks. I believe it is potentially legitimate to deny the right of surrender to such leaders and to kill them immediately if doing so has a fair chance of ending a conflict. Otherwise, I agree with the treatment obligations.
  • P5: I believe the treatment due military institutions should include political institutions of sufficient scale too, and that reciprocation can justify cultural/symbolic targets
  • P6: I largely agree with the limits of attack, at least WRT human targets (rather than human object targets). I note that I hold the US use of nuclear weapons against Japan in WW2 to have been a grave atrocity, unforgivable.
  • P7: I largely agree with these notes on fighting in urban areas, although I reject entirely any obligation to balance civilian life and military needs when shielding is underway; any responsibility for shielding must only fall upon the user of civilians as shields. However, I note as well that there is a positive obligation to allow civilians to flee areas of conflict as soon as and wherever possible when they can be verified to be civilians or when there are no security concerns; the "host" of a group of civilians should take steps to remove them from likely areas of conflict as soon as feasa as soon as and wherever possible when they can be verified to be civilians or when there are no security concerns; the "host" of a group of civilians should take steps to remove them from likely areas of conflict as soon as feasable.
  • P8: I believe it is potentially valid to destroy a manufacturing base that is primarily civilian if it is reasonably believed that economic damage will serve a clear military purpose over the likely span of the war.
  • P9: I believe it is legitimate to target broadcast media (primarily in a shutdown means) if they are regime-controlled or otherwise sufficiently partisian. I recognise this is a strong disagreement with the presented norms.
  • P10: I largely agree with the declarations regarding rights for prisoners, although the resources needed to hold people should not be expected to be provided at levels inappropriate for the costs of maintaining the military the military efforts involved; a rebellion that's barely scraping by may not be able to hold prisoners in much comfort, in contrast to the standards that might be managed by two well-established states in conflict. Likewise, I don't believe judicial review or acknowledgement of prisonerhood is strictly necessary.
  • P11: I agree fully with the prohibition of perfidy.
  • P12: My nuances are covered in P7.
  • P13: I largely agree, although I consider situations of seige to be valid, and making access to aid conditional on departing a seiged area and in doing so passing security seems valid.