Hard to say if wars (fictive or real) ever had any rules. And if there were some rules, then there were also attempts to break them, or at least to avoid them to take any advantage. So, it may seem like nonsense to try to restrict wars by rules.

But what if someone (mostly probably a ruler or another very important person) would be willing to do it and have sufficient power to enforce it - even if s/he would be the first person who would suffer for those rules.

Case 1:

Ruler wants to keep her kingdom (and mostly its capital that is capable to keep all people for limited time) safe. The kingdom does not have its own army, but has a treaty with other two countries (and in that way the ruler may count as having three armies) for cases of defense. So, the ruler needs to force the enemy army to wait until defenders arrive.

Case 2:

Kingdom suffers from guerrilla attacks of self-proclaimed army called White hunters. Since the main targets of this self-proclaimed army are hospitals and unfortified settlements, the ruler had to declare martial law and open bounty on White hunters to cancel the surprise element.

Meanwhile the situation in the first case is very simple. The situation in the second case is very problematic because war crimes may happen on both sides.


What rules could we set to make wars fair (if it is ever possible) and free of war crimes? And who should monitor compliance (because each fighting side may see the same thing in a different way)?


Cases described above are only examples from my own fantasy world - that may (or not) fit to some cases in real world. But let's say that many things may be done a little more easily in fantastic worlds, instead of the real world.

Other case (and now from real world) is war in former Yugoslavia (the mentioned song is about it, even if it didn't mention anyone or anything concrete in its lyrics), where all sides did some war crimes.

Special case was ETA in Spain. I don't know if all, but at least some bomb attacks were announced to minimize casualties.

Probably the first war with exactly named (and defined for the first time) war crimes was WWII.

Inspiration: My inspiration for this question was an article in the Daily Mail - Who is Game of Thrones' worst WAR CRIMINAL? at first - and also some other, for example Sabaton's song We burn


closed as too broad by Cyn, elemtilas, Don Qualm, dot_Sp0T, JBH Apr 14 at 19:11

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    $\begingroup$ A fair war is an oxymoron. Or do you expect side A to supply side B with same equipment and weapons to make the war fair? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Apr 13 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Only way to make wars fair and/or balanced is to have them in videogames only. $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 13 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ "War crimes" is what the losers did. The victors are always blameless. And war is one of those occasions where if one isn't cheating it means they are not trying hard enough. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 13 at 21:21

You can't stop war crimes

The whole concept of "war" in general comes down to rejecting authority and being willing to break the rules. If your authority is being rebelled against, the "fair war" rules they made won't be obeyed because the rebelling force doesn't care what the ruler has to say.

You can't make war fair

There is no such thing as "fair" - just try defining it. Is it when both armies have equal number of people? Weapons? Training? Fighting on a level field? As with my first point, when the objective is "kill, destroy", then the so-called "rules" can go out the window really quick.

It's kill or be killed. Who would be willing to die themselves - allowing their bitter rivals and enemies to conquer their land and family - instead of cut some corners to instead kill them?

You can limit "war crimes" through a mutually obeyed third-party

Roughly speaking, this is the role of the United Nations in the real world. There's a ton of politics and opinions as to whether or not the UN does it's job or is a good thing, but the intention is to prevent and stop war crimes, genocide, etc.

In other words, when two nations fight and one of them commits a "war crime", the threat of all other nations coming in and stopping you will make you think twice about committing that war crime. A recent example might be the civil war in Syria. After numerous threats to get involved because Assad was using chemical weapons (a war crime), multiple countries (led by the US) made a significant strike against the Syrian forces. This threat of outsider influence has been useful to stop (or limit) war crimes.

Use a deity or "galatic government"

Applying the same concept above, but with a deity or some type of galactic government would be a powerful motivator. If there is some deity which promises to stay out of human warfare except if either party commits some type of war crime, then that would be motivation to avoid committing war crimes - it brings the all-powerful force (or with a joint government some force so much bigger and stronger) down against you. That is, you committing war crimes means you will certainly lose the entire war, because the deity / joint government will get involved if you do.

It's all about motivation

There must be some motivation - some reason - to avoid war crimes when fighting. Here are some options for motivations:

  • deity / galatic gov't / joint gov't (described above)
  • supply chain (more resources given to the side which avoid war crimes, or supply of food/resources will stop if war crimes are committed)
  • promise of defense (a strong third party says they'll help you so long as you don't commit war crimes)
  • restricting escalation (a good example is the American Revolution - so long as things didn't get too violent, the British would hold off a full-fledged invasion. So if the warring parties are not totally committed to war, but breaking some list of rules would make the other party respond more, then it's in your best interested to avoid breaking the rules).
  • other religious motivations (rewards in afterlife, etc)

There was something like this in Middle Ages. Namely the Peace and Truce of God.

In practice, have a superior power issueing rules to the wars. A religious authority like the Pope followed and respected by all the beligerants kingdoms would do. That authority isn't powerful enough to enforce peace nor powerful enough of ruling everything by itself, but it is powerful enough to enforce some rules of war and punish those who disrespect it.

This way, anyone caught committing war crimes would be judged as an outlaw-barbaric-satanic-bandit-criminal and be quickly imprisoned or executed. Kings and other lords would not like to disobey the rules (or at least being caught doing that) because that would mean that they will lose the support and the loyalty of their own people and also give legitimacy for all his/her opponents (both internal and external) to quickly overthrow and execute him/her.

Of course, there would still be illegal covered actions carried out by bandits, spies, saboteurs, assassins, secret agents, terrorists and so on. But no kingdom would admit their support for that and would let anyone caught meet their doom undefended.

However, the honest soldiers who believe the cause they are defending, their country and respect the religious authority would vast outnumber those who don't and will police the kingdoms against them, enforcing the rules for the maximum extent as possible.


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