Compliance with International Humanitarian Law

Humanitarian assistance, Afghanistan by International Committee of the Red Cross

The United States has been deeply committed to promoting the norms of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). As with its support for accountability and justice, this commitment has long historical roots, dating back to the issuance of the Lieber Code governing Union forces in 1863—one of the first codifications of what we now call IHL.  In recent times, the scale and breadth of U.S. military deployments and engagements amplifies the critical significance of IHL and the imperative that all conflict parties comply, which serves to protect U.S. personnel and civilians. The United States invests heavily in compliance and in training its own military forces in IHL and human rights law.  The reasons for this are pragmatic as well as principled. The U.S. Law of War Manual identifies “strong self-interest [in compliance with IHL] of everyone subject to the law of war,” including by reinforcing military effectiveness, supporting military discipline, encouraging reciprocal compliance by adversaries, and maintaining public support.  Compliance with IHL by U.S. actors serves “not only to protect innocent civilians but also to protect its own military forces. American men and women in uniform benefit from the expectation that all parties to a conflict will respect the Geneva Conventions and customary international law…When the United States holds itself to these rules, allies that share the same values have greater confidence to work with the United States…” 

Foreword to the U.S. Law of War Manual

“The law of war is a part of our military heritage, and obeying it is the right thing to do. But we also know that the law of war poses no obstacle to fighting well and prevailing. Nations have developed the law of war to be fundamentally consistent with the military doctrines that are the basis for effective combat operations. For example, the self-control needed to refrain from violations of the law of war under the stresses of combat is the same good order and discipline necessary to operate cohesively and victoriously in battle. Similarly, the law of war’s prohibitions on torture and unnecessary destruction are consistent with the practical insight that such actions ultimately frustrate rather than accomplish the mission…Understanding our duties imposed by the law of war and our rights under it is essential to our service in the nation’s defense.”

Through various assistance programs, the United States similarly supports training and compliance initiatives with the armed forces of other nations—including military exchanges, bringing foreign military lawyers to participate in courses at the U.S. Army JAG School, and State Department-funded training and capacity building programs—which ensures norm diffusion, interoperability, and the protection of the reputation of the U.S. military when conducting joint operations. The United States also recognizes the importance of compliance with IHL in promoting stability and preventing atrocity, viewing “compliance with international law, including humanitarian law and principles” as a facet of its stabilization goal under the 2020 Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability,  and noting that the Department of Defense capacity building programs for foreign security forces  “help partner countries more effectively prevent and respond to atrocities…includ[ing] training on respecting the law of armed conflict [and]…the rule of law.”  Its commitment to these issues has also been demonstrated in other ways, such as extensive vetting of partner forces (so-called “Leahy vetting”) to ensure that U.S. funds do not underwrite individuals or groups with a history of engaging in violations.  While the United States' record is far from perfect in this regard, these initiatives evidence a commitment by the United States to prevent violations of IHL as well as provide accountability when they do occur.

The Rome Statute is intended to reinforce compliance with IHL and accountability for violations  The majority of the war crimes cases that the Court has prosecuted or issued arrest warrants involve acts that are criminal under U.S. law as well, such as the deliberate targeting of civilians as a military strategy or tactic; the commission of rape or other acts of sexual violence during conflicts; the conscription of child soldiers; and deliberate attacks on peacekeepers or precious cultural property.