The history of the law of armed conflict in the light of the leading philosophical and religious doctrines and traditions

The history of humanitarianism, the precursor to what was to become international humanitarian law, is as old as mankind itself. Down through the ages, leaders and combatants alike have had to grapple with the issue of humanitarian conduct in armed conflicts. This concern sharpened as human society became more organized, irrespective of the nature of the society in question (hunting-and-gathering, agricultural, craft-based, industrial, etc.). Indeed, whether the society was structured on the basis of tribes or clans, whether its dimensions were that of a town or larger, whether it was national or imperial, the conduct of combatants in time of war and the punishment of the crimes they committed has never ceased to interest philosophers, religious scholars, leaders and legislators. By looking at how civilizations have evolved over time, we shall see to what extent the principles of humanitarian law prevailed in pre-colonial Africa (I), Christianity (II) and Islam (III)**, discover the points on which they converge (IV), and, finally, consider why, despite the existence of these principles, international humanitarian law is so routinely flouted everywhere in the world (V).

* This study has been fully published and can be consulted in: “Making the Voice of Humanity Heard”, Essay on humanitarian assistance and international humanitarian Law in honour of HRH Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Edited by Liesbeth Lijnzaad, Johanna van Sambeek and Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Associate Editor Corinne Packer. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers . Leiden/Boston, The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Netherlands Red Cross, 2004, Pages 365-385

** We have limited this study to the humanitarian values prevailing in Africa, Christianity and Islam. However these values does also exists in the Jewish tradition, Asian and Latino American conception, see A. Ravitzky, Prohibited Wars in the Jewish Tradition and M. Waltzer, War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, in Ethics of Wars and Peace – Religious and Secular Perspectives, edited by Nardin Terry (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press 1998) pp.95 ff and p.115 ff; S. Adachi, La conception asiatique, J.M. Ruda, La conception latino-américaine, in Les dimentions internationales du droit humanitaire (Paris, Pedone, IHD, Unesco 1986) pp.31 ff and pp.61 ff.