Having recently completed studies on international law, watching the Israeli-Hamas war play out on my screen is both unbelievable and completely unsurprising. On one hand, I do not understand how a human can hate another they've never even met, with so much malice that they target children. Yet history tells me it's happened over and over again throughout our species' reign of terror over this planet.
As is always the case, when the governments go to war from behind the safety of their mahogany desks in their palatial seats of power, it is the people - on all sides - who suffer the consequences.
The atrocities we are seeing on the television and social media are hard to look at; I can only imagine the pain and soul decimation of living through it. Observing the horrors cannot help but give rise to the question, are we witnessing war-crimes in real-time?
While acknowledging the nuance of international law and the complexities of its application, the short answer to that question is, well, yes.
But what is a war crime?
The first use of the term "war crime" is credited to Johann Casper Bluntchli in 1872, but before it had a collective name, the atrocities were still perpetrated. Recently, in A World History of War Crimes, Michael Bryant has applied our evolving concept of what a war crime today is, to map the heinous history of our actions on the battlefield from the stone age (through archaeological analysis), through ancient, medieval and modern periods across China, Japan, India, Israel, Greece, Rome, the Islamic world and the West. Siege warfare, religious conflict, battlefield butchery and cultural decimation over the centuries demonstrate that neither the romanticised concepts of chivalry nor honour codes could soften war-time cruelty.
Perhaps it is more stunning to learn that the first attempt to impose restraints on war strategies on an international level didn't occur until the first Geneva Convention in 1864. The original articles in this convention were revised and expanded in 1906, 1929 and 1949 to take into account the rapidly developing war technologies and strategies.
The 1949 international Geneva conference saw a comprehensive revision and expansion of the previous treaties, resulting in developing four new conventions: this is what we now know as the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949. This treaty body became the basis of modern international humanitarian law under the United Nations.
Furthermore, the Rome State of the International Criminal Court explicitly addresses and defines war crimes, for which individual leaders can be held personally responsible through the ICC. Article 8 defines "war crimes" as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, including wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, extensive unjustified destruction and appropriation of property, and taking of hostages.
Additionally, Article 8 includes a long host of serious violations of the laws and customs of international armed conflict, that encompass targeting civilians and humanitarian/medical personnel, rape, starvation, taking of hostages ... the list is long if not distinguished.
And from what I've seen, both sides in this Israeli-Hamas war have used these tactics to weaponise the suffering of the people.
But how do the conventions and statutes help? How can international law offer any protection beyond levying charges in the International Criminal Court after the fact?
MORE ZOE WUNDENBERG:
International law is a different body of law to municipal systems. Its horizontal structure requires states' consent to be bound by the provisions, and generally relies upon this international mutual responsibility to maintain a balance of peace between nations.
However, while individual leaders of nations that commit violations of the Geneva conventions can be charged under the Rome statute, government actions collectively only attract trade sanctions, economic retaliation and moral outrage.
Does this impact the value of public international law? Or does this force individuals driving governmental decisions to be held accountable for their actions? The relationship between the individual and the organ of government is often complex and I'm not sure a clearcut answer exists here.
But one thing remains certain: the efficacy of international law as the harbinger of peace is questionable at best: the balance that international law seeks to maintain is rarely achieved - over 3421 years, only 268 scattered years have enjoyed peace. And none of them occurred since 1864.
- Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au, and a regular columnist for ACM.