Military Law

Military Law is founded on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ applies to all branches of the US military and governs most issues of legal concern for soldiers and others subject to the jurisdiction of US military courts. For example, the UCMJ covers the different types of court-martial, the apprehension and treatment of prisoners (both foreign and domestic), and the trial process for military tribunals. The UCMJ also covers the rules governing military jurisdiction, legal investigations, discharges from the service, the release and revision of military records, post-trial review procedures, and appellate procedures. The UCMJ applies to all active-duty, reservist, national guard, and retired military personnel.

The Laws of War (also known as “juris in bello”), on the other hand, refers to the international laws pertaining to acceptable justifications for nations to take military action against another and the limits of acceptable wartime conduct (e.g., treatment of prisoners, acceptance of surrender, use of biological/chemical weapons, and prohibitions against needlessly targeting civilians). This body of law is almost entirely comprised of treaty agreements and rules promulgated by the United Nations.

The laws of war are designed to limit war to achieving the political goals that started the war (e.g., territorial control) and should not include unnecessary destruction. They are also based on a notion that wars should be brought to an end as quickly as possible and that people and property that are not directly a part of the war effort should be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship. To that end, the laws of war are designed to mitigate hardship by protecting both combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary harm, protecting prisoners of war who fall into enemy hands, and facilitating the restoration of peace.

Military necessity, along with distinction, and proportionality, are the three main principles of the laws of war. “Military necessity” means an attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military target, and the harm caused to civilians and civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. “Distinction” refers to the legal use of force in an armed conflict, where a distinction is made between targeting combatants and noncombatants. “Proportionality” relates to the efforts made by the combatants to ensure that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property is not excessive in relation to the direct, concrete military advantage anticipated by an attack on a military objective.

The resources below provide additional information on both military law and the laws of war.


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Military Law - US

  • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM)

    The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM), headed by Assistant Secretary Andrew J. Shapiro, is the Department of State's principal link to the Department of Defense. The PM Bureau provides policy direction in the areas of international security, security assistance, military operations, defense strategy and plans, and defense trade.

  • Uniform Code of Military Justice

    In its endeavor to create an extensive and readily accessible internet site dedicated to military legal resources, the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Legal Center & School Library in Charlottesville, VA, has focused this part of the site on a comprehensive legislative history of one of the principal documents of military law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ is a federal law enacted by Congress; it may be cited as United States Code, Title 10, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 47.

  • United States Department of Defense

    The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country. The department's headquarters is at the Pentagon.

  • US Military

    Information and resources about the United States Military Justice System, such as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), court martials, administrative action, service members civil relief act, military lawyers, and laws that affect military members.

Military Law - International

  • Beyond Intractability - International War Crimes Tribunals

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  • International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts

    The United Nations established special international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during times of war and genocide. Successful convictions of these political and military leaders are meant to bring justice to victims and to deter others from committing such crimes in the future.

  • International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

    The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is the world’s leading authority on political-military conflict.

  • International Peace Operations Association (IPOA)

    IPOA’s mission is to: promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the peace and stability operations industry; to engage in a constructive dialogue and advocacy with policy-makers about the growing and positive contribution of these firms to the enhancement of international peace, development and human security; to provides unique networking and business development opportunities for its member companies; and to inform the concerned public about the activities and role of the industry.

  • NATO - Role of the International Military Staff

    The International Military Staff (IMS) is the executive agency of the Military Committee. It provides staff support to the Military Committee and is responsible for the preparation of assessments, studies and other papers on NATO military matters. The IMS also ensures that decisions and policies on military matters are implemented by the appropriate NATO military bodies. The IMS provides the essential link between the political decision-making bodies of the Alliance and the NATO Strategic Military Commanders (SACEUR and SACT) and their staffs.

  • The Geneva Conventions of 1949

    The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols are at the core of international humanitarian law, the body of international law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects. They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities (civilians, health workers and aid workers) and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war.

Organizations Related to Military Law

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    The Official Web site of the United States Air Force

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    This section covers the Army's leadership, warfighting capabilities and operations. Content in this section will change over time as the Army adapts to meet new threats.

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  • United States Marine Corps

    Official U.S. Marine Corps Web Site

  • United States Navy

    The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.

  • US Department of Defense - Community Relations

    The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Community Relations, fosters public awareness and understanding of Department of Defense (DoD) missions, personnel, programs and requirements.

Publications Related to Military Law

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