Is all fair in Love and War?

The proverb ‘All is fair in love and war’ is used to explain those situations where humans don’t comply with the regular rules of conduct and perform activities which are considered unfair or otherwise immoral in the eyes of basic societal values. They do so due to the sense of righteousness they somehow create or the standards they make as they see fit to level their situations. What the proverb connotes is the sense of justification people use for the actions they so commit and guiltlessly explain even the lowest form of human conduct and tag it with “all’s fair in love and war”.

There are countless flaws with the proverb but not worth the time and effort explaining because unlike many of the wise proverb this particular one hasn’t quite stood the test of time. The main reason being, everything is not acceptable and is not fair when it comes to love and war, especially war, and what is wrong is wrong, there is no explanation or excuse for it. With this motive, times have changed and over the years, people have stopped using justifications for crimes in war and have agreed to formulate certain protocols to regulate war.

How it all started

A short history since the beginning of time shows us that humans have resorted to war and violence as a way to settle disagreements.  Yet through the ages, people from around the world have tried to limit the brutality of war. As warfare has become more advanced and deadly, nations of the world have come together to outlaw certain practices to spare innocent human lives. It was this humanitarian spirit that led to the First Geneva Convention of 1864 and the birth of modern international humanitarian law or familiarly known as the ‘rules of war’, setting the basic limits on how wars can be fought.

These universal laws of war protect those not fighting as well as those no longer able to. In a nutshell, international humanitarian law is all about making choices that preserve a minimum of human dignity in times of war and make sure that living together again is possible once the last bullet has been shot and the rules of war help assure that we achieve the goal and principles set out by international humanitarian law for a better and brighter world. And hence breaking the rules of war has always been a wrong decision as nothing good has ever come of it.

The rules of war

The rules of war or formally known as the international humanitarian law are a set of international rules that set out what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict.[1]

These international rules are similar to the basic principles of the law of armed conflict which is of utmost importance for every personnel ranking from commanders to staff officers to soldiers in the war field to know, understand and follow these principles at times of their training and practice. These principles can be listed as follows: –

  • Principle of Distinction

This rule of principles of distinction lays out the basic idea that there is a distinction between combatants and civilians at the time of war. The laws of war protect those who are fighting and those who are not. To regulate this, a distinction must always be made between who or what may be attacked and who or what must be spared and protected, most importantly, civilians can never be targeted, to do so is a war crime. Every possible care must be taken to avoid harming civilians or destroying things essential for their survival. They have a right to receive the help they need.

  • Principle of Military Necessity

The main crux of this principle is that it aims to explain how states should focus on accomplishing the objective of weakening the military forces of the enemy state at times of war. However, every action should be done in compliance with law and the weakening of the counter state should be done through an attack on a military objective. The definition of military objective has been mentioned in Article 52[2] of the Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions.[3]

  • Principle of  Proportionality

The principle of proportionality is simply the idea that the harms caused to civilians and civilian objects at the time of the attack on military objective should not exceed the direct military advantage obtained by the attack. In other words, the advantages after the operation of an attack should be so that the harms caused to civilians should be less than the advantage itself.

  • Principle of Limitation

This principle talks about the limits to the exploitation of warfare. Advances in weapon technology have meant that the rules of war have also had to adapt because some weapons and methods of warfare don’t distinguish between fighters and civilians and hence limits on their use have been agreed. In the future, wars may be fought with fully autonomous robots the question remains of whether such robots will ever be able to distinguish between a military target and someone who must never be attacked. Thus no matter how sophisticated weapons become they must be in line with the rules of war.

  • Principle of Good Faith

This rule depicts that during negotiations between opponents and humanitarian organizations, good faith must be observed. It is the fairness and mutual respect between counterparties. It is also called the principle of honour.

  • Principle of Humane-Treatment and Non-Discrimination[4]

This principle observes that the laws of war prohibit torture and other ill-treatment of detainees whatever their past. They must be given food and water and allowed to communicate with loved ones. This preserves their dignity and keeps them alive. At the same time, medical workers must always be allowed to do their job. The Red Cross or the Red Crescent must not be attacked. The sick or wounded have a right to be cared for regardless of whose side they are on at the time of war.

Times when the rule of war has been violated

The Halajabi Chemical attack

Nearly 5,000 people lost their lives and 10,000 people were injured when a massacre took place against the Kurdish people on 16th March 1998. Saddam Hussein’s regime committed this five-hour-long chemical attack using mustard gas along with other nerve agents and civilians were the prime victims to this attack. Later in 2005, Saddam Hussein was collectively tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Aktion T4

This is the least talked about topic during the times of Nazi Germany when the concept of ‘mercy death’ was practised. Nearly 300,000 people were killed the majority of who were German citizens themselves. After Hitler signed a ‘euthanasia note’ authorized by his physician Karl Brandt, the killings began wherein the hopes of creating a more pure race of humans thousands of mentally ill, disabled individuals, children and adults were slaughtered and mass murdered.

The case of Bosnia and Herzegovina V. Serbia and Montenegro[5]

This is the biggest well-known case for the violation of international laws wherein an act of genocide was committed with the intent to exterminate the Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though Serbia was not directly blamed for the genocide, it was however blamed for not preventing it.

So then, is everything really fair in love and war?

The answer is plain and simple ‘No’. Killing and destroying people’s lives in the name of war and justifying it with a proverb is nowhere near fair and just. And the truth is, if things were fair, we would not need conventions and bilateral treaties and international instruments to regulate human conduct. If we look at it from a philosophical point of view, it would surely turn out to be a very different perception of the proverb and the vast subjectivity of the word ‘fairness’. However, reality ceases us from the utopian world philosophy portrays. So, the only way forward is to pragmatically think on how we can reduce and eliminate the dark sides of a war and the catastrophe that it has brought upon humanity. The proverb is a chaotic misconception and hence that is why International Humanitarian Law has completely proved that the proverb has failed to stand the test of time.


[1] International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘What are the rules of war and why do they matter’, available at- [https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-rules-of-war-Geneva-Conventions] accessed on May 31, 2020.

[2] Art. 52 states that ” In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”

[3] International Committee of the Red Cross, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, Art. 52 ‘General Protection of Civilian Objects’ available at- [https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Article.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=F08A9BC78AE360B3C12563CD0051DCD4] accessed on May 31 2020.

[4] International Committee of the Red Cross, Unit for Relations with Armed and Security Forces, ‘Introduction to the Law of armed conflict’, pg-12, 13 (2002).

[5] Bosnia and Herzegovina V. Serbia and Montenegro, 2007 I.C.J. 191.

Prashamsa Ghimire from National Law College, Tribhuwan University, Nepal.

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