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Berga: Soldiers of Another War
Stories of Berga What Would You Do? Timeline & Maps Berga and Beyond War Crimes
Intro POWs and the Laws of War WWII and Its Legacy
WWII and Its Legacy
Intro Customary Laws WWII Atrocities Recent Developments

Customary Laws
Civil war soldiers

Soldiers on the battlefield during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

By Anne E. Mahle

The development of the laws governing armed conflict, like most norms in human history, is cyclical and occurs in fits and starts. Previously unfathomable scenarios have become all too real: a battle wounds and kills tens of thousands and the armed forces of each side leave their wounded to die on the battlefield; poison gas is used against soldiers in armed conflict -- or even against a country's own citizens; a government seeks to completely exterminate a large segment of its own population as well as that of its neighbors; a nuclear bomb is dropped on a major metropolitan area; mass graves are discovered in a countryside.

In the aftermath of World War II, the importance of international law came to the fore.

Even a modest scholar of history can easily name the warfare atrocities that have compelled the community of nations to act. The international community responds to these events by enacting new treaties and international conventions, by initiating war crimes trials, by defining the attempted extermination of a people in whole or part as genocide, and, significantly, by determining that existing treaty law has become customary law. Customary laws are norms that bind all nations regardless of whether or not that country has signed and ratified an applicable treaty.

In the aftermath of World War II, the importance of international law, in particular the laws governing the conduct of armies on the military battlefield -- often referred to as either the laws of war or humanitarian law -- came to the fore. Three major developments occurred immediately following the end of hostilities in Europe and Asia: the creation of international military tribunals to try individuals for violations of the laws of war; the whole-scale revision of the major conventions governing armed conflict; and the creation of conventions prohibiting genocide.

Anne Mahle is an attorney at Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis. During law school she worked at the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California Berkeley (Boalt Hall).

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