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)
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- Uniform Code of Military Justice
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- United States Department of Defense
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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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- NATO - Role of the International Military Staff
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The Official Web site of the United States Air Force
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Official U.S. Marine Corps Web Site
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