eli5 How does the Geneva convention work? How can it be enforced if nations are already at war? What incentive do armies have for following it?


I mean there are no referees on the battlefield.

In: 3

The wars winners enforce it on the losers at the conclusion of hostilities.

If both belligerents are relatively weak, a more powerful third party may enter the conflict under the pretense of enforcing Geneva conventions – like the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

A powerful nation only follows them as necessary to placate their allies. There is no enforcement, nor is any nation realistically capable of enforcing it against a superpower.

Armies do have *some* incentive to behave, so that their own prisoners are treated well in kind and enemy soldiers and civilians are less likely to fight to the bitter end. You get a lot less last-stand heroics and kamikaze bombers if they think they’re free to surrender.

There are also semi-formal agreements to avoid certain tactics so that they’re not used against you – Hitler was personally injured by a poison gas attack in WWI and had a tacit agreement with allied forces during WWII to not deploy them.

The incentive for following it is so that your enemy will follow it.

Why treat your prisoners of war humanely? If you can’t think of any other reason, perhaps the desire for your own soldiers held in POW camps to be treated well is enough of a reason.

Rules of war have existed for millennia, and quite possibly since war began. They’re generally followed best when there are well-established parties, with long-standing and relatively stable relationships. The reasons why should be clear from the following.

An important thing about war is that countries – and individuals – are rarely simply focused on winning a war by any means possible.

They will consider:

* How the other side will behave
* Negotiations to end the war
* Their relationship with the other side after the war
* What will happen if they lose
* Their relationships with other countries
* International enforcement mechanisms
* Their own self-perception and the perception of their population.

To take these in turn.

How the other side will behave is the simplest one: if you shoot your opponent’s prisoners, will they do the same to you?

Most wars end through negotiations. Are war crimes going to make your opponent more or less likely to agree to a deal on your terms? This could go either way, of course, but generally war crimes will harden the other side’s resolve. Ukraine is a good example: the evidence of Russian war crimes makes it harder for the Ukrainian government to give up territory, if people are liable to be murdered by the Russian military. If you break international law, can you be trusted to uphold a peace treaty?

What kind of relationship do you want with your opponent after the war? Do you want them to regard you as evil and lawbreaking? Or to get what you want and then have a friendly relationship? Even if you are actually *occupying* your opponent’s territory it still matters how people think about you.

What if the war goes badly and you have to accept unfavourable terms, or even occupation? Your opponent now has good reason to demand justice or some kind of redress.

What do other countries think of you? Can they trust you to follow treaties? Will they want to fight alongside your soldiers? Will they be more likely to help your opponents in future? Will they apply any other sanctions, diplomatic, economic, military?

Mechanisms for enforcing international law do exist, although they’re *(edit: very)* patchy. Ad hoc tribunals can be set up, some countries apply “universal jurisdiction” for serious war crimes, allowing them to be tried in that country’s courts even if their nationals were neither perpetrator nor victim. They can’t usually arrest someone without the cooperation of their government, but if you’re thinking about committing a war crime, do you trust your country’s government for the rest of your life? What if you want to travel to other countries?

Lastly, most people want to feel they are good people, and most people in power want to look good to their populations (or key parts of the population). If war crimes are considered immoral, or if following laws if thought to be a good thing, then allowing them or committing them is not a good look.

*Edit: just to be completely clear – these are all reasons to follow rules like the Geneva Conventions, which is what the question was. I’m making no claims as to how strong these reasons are or how well these rules are followed. It’s not hard to come up arguments as to why these reasons are often inadequate to prevent war crimes. Or, for that matter, examples of how rules of war have been and are morally inadequate.*