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The Rules of Engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict Cause and Effect Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2019


To some extent, every military operation poses a threat to those people who are not involved in combat. Moreover, any armed conflict may entail the violation of human rights, destruction of property, or any other action that can be condemned from an ethical point of view.

The rules of engagement (ROE) and the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) are aimed at reducing the risk of such events. They can be viewed as a set of regulations which explain when and how the force can be used. This paper will discuss the history of the LOAC and ROE and explain the difference between them.

Secondly, it is necessary to show how they affect combat and peacekeeping operations by looking at the operations of Australian forces. On the whole, both the ROE and LOAC set much higher standards for the countries are engaged in military operations.

They have to take much more effort in order to minimize the risks for the innocent people. Thus, these restrictions play a positive role, even though they may decrease the efficiency of the troops.

The history of the ROE and LOAC

Although, war has always been a part of human history, the rules regulating the behavior of combatants began to be codified only in the nineteenth century. At that time, it became apparent that military operations cannot be separated from the norms of ethics.

One can refer to the famous Lieber Code which was adopted in the Union Army during the Civil War in the United States (Nelson and Sheriff 257). It expressly forbade the slaughter of civilians and the soldiers who surrendered (Nelson and Sheriff 257; Perna 31). This code can be viewed as the first example of the ROE.

Later, the ethical norms were discussed during a series of Geneva conventions during which international leaders attempted to set the rules to which combatants had to adhere (Crawford 17). These conventions laid the foundations of modern LOAC. Unfortunately, the two World Wars showed the LOAC could be useless, if they had been enforced.

Special attention should be paid to the Fourth Geneva Convention that took place in 1949. The thing is that largely motivated by the atrocities committed during the World War II, and its purpose was to find ways of averting them in the future. It was important for two reasons.

First of all, every state that ratified this agreement cannot violate it only because the other combatant state has not ratified this treaty (Crawford 19; Gardam 80). In other words, every country that is a party to Geneva Convention cannot violate its provisions, even if it is at war with a state that does not adhere to the laws of armed conflict. Before 1949 the states did not have to comply with this obligation.

The provisions of the Geneva Convention played an important role during various armed conflicts, for example, the War in Afghanistan or the invasion of Iraq (Sanchez 465). These rules address such important issues as the treatment of captives, taking hostages, torture, confinement of the civilian people, and so forth.

Certainly, one cannot say that these rules are never violated, but they do make warfare less atrocious, at least if we are speaking about civilian population and people who chose to surrender.

The difference between the Rules of Engagement and the Laws of Armed Conflict

At this point, it is necessary to explain the distinguishing features of the ROE and the LOAC. Even though in both cases, these regulations are supposed to determine the appropriate use of military force, they differ in certain ways. First of all the rules of engagement are imposed by a state, rather than a certain international authority such as the United Nations Organizations (Humphries 25; Knoops 217).

For example, in Australia such rules are set by the Australian Department of Defense (ADF). In contrast, the laws of armed conflict are obligatory for every nation that ratified the provisions of Geneva Convention or other international agreements.

The ROE are much more specific because they take into account the circumstances in which the military operation will be carried out. They also reflect international political situation. For example, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. air forces were required to want inhabitants of urban areas about the oncoming attack even though they knew that there were Vietnamese combatants in these areas (Humphries 25).

The thing is that they were not required to act in such a way by the laws of armed conflict. Therefore, it is possible to say that the rules of engagement can be more restrictive. Yet, it is not always the case.

As a rule, the military planners place emphasis on the protection of soldiers’ lives and this goal eventually justify civilian casualties or at least some risk to the lives of these people. This is the distinction that one should take into account. Overall, the ROE ensure the safety of both soldiers and civilians, but this goal is often difficult to achieve.

Additionally, it is necessary to mention that the rules of engagement are not accessible to the general public because the disclosure of this information can undermine a military operation (Laurence and Mathews 82). One can only deduce some of the provision, but not each of them.

These are the main differences between the laws of armed conflict and the rules of engagement. Although, they serve similar purposes, the ROE are more specific and more focused on a particular situation, rather than any type of military operation.

The operations conducted by the Australian Army

The Australian Army took part in different in different military operations and performed different functions. For example, one can mention the deployment of Australian troops in East Timor; this intervention was sanctioned by the United Nations (Head 90).

In this case, their major priority was peacekeeping, in particular, the prevention of ethnic conflict. Overall, it is possible to say that the rules of engagement played an important part. For instance, when ADF soldiers killed civilian protesters at the Dili Airport, military officials referred to the rules of engagement, especially, the soldier’s right to defend themselves (Head 92).

Although, the exact provisions of the ROE were not disclosed by the officials. Their argument suggests that the soldiers can use firepower if they believe that there is a threat to their lives. The problem is that the ROE usually do not tell how exactly a soldier should act in situations when urgent actions are needed (Bono 70).At has to be admitted that the enforcement of these regulations is not always made public.

More importantly, those people who violated the laws of armed conflict or the rules of armed conflict are not always punished. For example, the officials of ADF chose not to tell about the sanctions taken against officers or soldiers who killed civilians near the Dili Airport (Head 92). This is a significant limitation that one cannot overlook.

One can discuss two important missions of Australian forces, namely Operation Slipper and the invasion of Iraq that were commenced in 2001 and 2003 respectively. They were both combating and peacekeeping operations (Grey 280).

The officials of ADF did not disclose the rules of engagement but they mentioned some of the main points such as the prohibition to use cluster munitions and landmines that were banned by Ottawa Treaty. These weapons pose a great threat to people who may not be involved in military operations. It should be noted that unlike the United States, Australia is a country that accepted this treaty (Matthew, McDonald & Rutherford 81).

Furthermore, Australian forces had to keep with other provisions of the LOAC. For example, the troops had no right to attack civilian buildings provided that they had been occupied by combatants (Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability unpaged).

Furthermore, the Australian forces were obliged to defend those people who suffered from wounds or sickness (Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability unpaged). This requirement originates from the laws of armed conflict.

Overall, Australian soldiers were more limited in their capacity to use force and they had to adjust their strategies. Still, one has to admit that full information about the rules of engagement is seldom disclosed and general public does not always have the opportunity to see how possible violations are investigated.

The effect of ROE and LOAC on peacekeeping and combat operations

The rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict have a different affect on combat operations and peacekeeping. First of all, the ROE shape the choice of weaponry that can be used. For instance, cluster munitions, napalm, landmines are used less frequently in today’s warfare (Borrie 16).

Certainly, attempts have been made to ban these weapons, for instance, there is the Convention on Cluster Munitions (Borrie 16). However, this treaty was not signed by every country, for example the United States and Russia refused to ratify this agreement.

Thus, one can say that only the ROE restrict the use of such weapons. Secondly, these regulations affect the order of military operations. Sometimes, troops are obliged to warn civilians about the future bombings, even if they know that hostile troops are located in a particular area (Humphries 25). In turn, the laws of armed conflict pay more attention to the treatment of civilian population and captives.

For instance, torture, taking hostages, or denial of access to medical care are expressly prohibited under the provisions of the Geneva Convention (Naftali 25; Bassiouni 429). Thus, both ROE and LOAC set much higher standards for the states that are engaged in combat operations.

Military planners have to find ways of reducing the risk posed to non-combatant population. Certainly, in some cases, this requirement makes the troops less efficient.

However, these restrictions do not put a very heavy burden on the troops because the development of technologies enables to minimize the threat to the lives of innocent people (Pandey 263). Thus, modern armed forces can accept the norms of the LOAC or ROE.

To some degree peacekeeping is also affect by these regulations. Certainly, their details may vary in different countries, but there are some common principles. For example, peacekeepers are supposed to keep neutrality and avoid taking sides (Mays 31).

Furthermore, the ROE of peacekeepers usually postulate that military force can be used only as a method of defense. In other words, they cannot attack combating sides or take any retaliatory actions against them (Nasu 189). Although, this requirement seems rather obvious, there were cases when it was violated.

For example, the Nigerian soldiers who were deployed in Liberia were accused of favoring one side of the conflict over the other (Francis 130). In this way, one can only increase hostilities, rather than alleviate them.

Finally, the rules of engagement postulate that a peacekeeper has a right to use weapons in order to defend oneself. Finally, their task is to make sure that the laws of armed conflict are not violated by any of the combating sides. These are their main goals. In many cases, the work of peacekeepers is more difficult because they have to reconcile combatant sides that have conflicting interests, values, and priorities.


The rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict are essential for preventing cruelty to civilians, unnecessary use of military force, or mistreatment of people. They also ensure that peacekeeping forces keep neutrality.

Although, it is sometimes difficult to reinforce these rules, they still help to protect the life and human rights of many people. On the whole, they can be viewed as a positive influence on modern military operations.

The only issue which should be addressed is the enforcement of these rules and norms. It is necessary to find incentives that can make states adhere to the laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement; otherwise they can prove useless.

Works Cited

Bassiouni, Cherif. Crimes Against Humanity: Historical Evolution and Contemporary Application. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

Bono, Giovanna. NATO’s ‘peace-enforcement’ Tasks and ‘policy Communities,’ 1990-1999, New York: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2003. Print.

Borrie, John. Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won. New York: United Nations Publications, 2009. Print.

Crawford, Emily. The Treatment of Combatants and Insurgents Under the Law of Armed Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Francis, David. Dangers Of Co-deployment: Un Co-operative Peacekeeping In Africa, New York: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005. Print.

Gardam, Judith. Necessity, Proportionality and the Use of Force by States, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Grey, Jeffrey. A Military History of Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Head, Michael. Calling Out the Troops: The Australian Military and Civil Unrest : the Legal and Constitutional Issues, Melbourne: Federation Press, 2009. Print.

Humphries, John G. “Operations Law And The Rules Of Engagement.” Airpower Journal 6.3 (1992): 25-26. Print

Knoops, Geert-Jan. Defenses in Contemporary International Criminal Law, London: BRILL, 2008. Print.

Laurence, Janice, and M. Matthews. The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Matthew, Richard, B. McDonald, and K. Rutherford. Landmines And Human Security: International Politics And War’s Hidden Legacy, New York: SUNY Press, 2006. Print.

Mays, Terry. Historical Dictionary of Multinational Peacekeeping, New York: Scarecrow Press, 2010. Print.

Naftali, Orna. International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law: Pas de Deux. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Nasu, Hitoshi. International Law on Peacekeeping: A Study of Article 40 of the UN Charter, London: BRILL, 2009. Print.

Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. Rules of Engagement – Afghanistan and Iraq. 21 Jan. 2010. Web. <>.

Nelson, Scott, and C. Sheriff. A People at War: Civilians and Soldiers in America’s Civil War, 1854-1877, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Pandey, Victor. Information And Communication Technologies, London: Gyan Books, 2004. Print.

Perna, Laura. The Formation of the Treaty Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts, New York: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2006. Print.

Sanchez, Pablo. International Legal Dimension of Terrorism, New York: BRILL, 2009. Print.

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