The Movement for the Abolition of War

War and Law

Key Documents

UN Charter, 1945

“WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Nuremberg Principles, 1950

“Principle 1: Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment…”

Human Rights Act, 1998

“Right to Life: 1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law…”

Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, 1949

“Article 1: The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances…”

Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians,  1949

“Article 2: In addition to the provisions which shall be implemented in peace-time, the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them…”

Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

Recalling that, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance…”

International Criminal Court Act, 2001

“This Act is incorporated into British domestic law, which allows British courts to try people for war crimes, genocide and
crimes against humanity. If, for whatever reason, it proves impossible to bring a case in the British courts, the case may be
referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague… “

“Assessing Damage, Urging Action”, 2009

Report by the International Commission of Jurists on Terrorism, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights, published on 16th February 2009. This sets out, amongst other things, the illegality of the actions of the US and UK in the previous eight years. Much useful reference material included.

Applying International Law

by Lesley Docksey

International Law: Treaties, Conventions and the Illegality of War

When the United Nations was set up in 1945 the first aim, as set out in the Preamble to the UN Charter, was “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. This basic aim means that no UN resolution can authorise war. It can authorise military action by a state in its own defence. It can authorise military intervention to prevent further conflict and to protect and save lives – the well-known ‘blue beret’ peace keeping initiatives. But beyond that it should not go.

Educating people on the legal rights and wrongs of waging war is one of MAW’s most important activities. Making them aware of the range of actions considered illegal, particularly where armed forces are concerned; informing them of the responsibilities and duties of any person engaged in war, especially the responsibilities of armed forces towards civilians; helping people to understand that many of the weapons that our own forces use can be considered illegal; all these things encourage people to think about the alternatives to war.

War has been with us for a long time. As people became more concerned about the morality of war and the damage it causes, rules of engagement started to make their appearance. During the 19th and 20th centuries many treaties and conventions on the rules and conduct of warfare were formed, signed and enacted. Between them, these treaties and conventions make war an illegal activity under international law. We do not need a specific law outlawing war – under all the different pieces of national and international legislation, war is already illegal.1

Conventions and Human Rights

You do not need to be a lawyer to make use of these documents, and they are one of the best tools we have for arguing for the abolition of war. Many people who quote the Geneva Conventions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have never studied the documents they are relying on. This section is here to help you remedy that. Also, one needs to be well prepared in order to counter those people who think that these laws just make it easier for ‘them’ the people on the ‘other’ side, forgetting that they are our rights too.

A good example of this is the number of people in Britain who have said we should get rid of the European Human Rights Act (enacted into our domestic law) because they believe it is a ‘criminal’s charter’ or some such thing. They say this without considering that the Act applies to them as well, or what rights they too would forgo if we did abolish the act. Yet it is a very simple and easy to understand document and it’s in this section. Print it out and take it with you when you go campaigning – in fact take several copies and hand them out.


Politicians can often misquote or ‘misinterpret’ the laws to suit their actions (the use by George Bush and Tony Blair of UN Resolution 1441 to justify invading Iraq comes to mind). So it is always worth checking the genuine article to see if it really does say what the politicians say it says. And it is even better if you can quote the relevant Article, Paragraph or Subsection when corresponding or debating with members of the government. It makes it that much harder for your views to be dismissed.  The best campaigning policy always is to do your groundwork. No one expects that you should read every single document (unless you actually are an international lawyer) but a little research will give you the facts you need to make your case.

Best sources

To make it easy for you here are two websites through which you can access just about every important document you could possibly need to help persuade people that war is illegal and should be abolished.

On the website of the Edwin Ginn Library, based in the Fletcher School, Tufts University, you will find the Multilaterals Project. This is an “ongoing project to make available the texts of international multilateral conventions and other instruments”.  Although the project was initiated to improve public access to environmental agreements, the collection today also includes treaties in the fields of human rights, commerce and trade, laws of war and arms control, and other areas”.

The Human Rights and the Rules of Warfare/Arms Control sections include many of the Geneva Conventions as well as various treaties dealing with nuclear weapons. There is also a link to other sources of Conventions and Treaties, covering Arms/Security and Human Rights/Humanitarianism, as well as a country by country section.

Among those links is another valuable resource – the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.  This is a collection of documents held by the Lillian Goldman Law Library, dating from ancient times to the present, arranged century by century. The section for the 20th Century holds the texts not only of the Geneva and Hague Conventions, but all the papers relating to the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial as well as many UN Conventions and Resolutions. There is even a Documentary record of the Middle East, 1916-2001, which includes, for those of you interested in the Israel/Palestine question, a ‘Palestine’ page.

While this website can already provide you with the texts of selected documents, the two sites listed above can provide a much fuller resource, enabling us all to campaign from a strong base.

1 This is the legal opinion of Sir Christopher Weeramantry, who served as a judge at the International Court of Justice between 1991-2000, during which he presided over a case against nuclear weapons and their threatened use.