The Art of War : The Origin of the First Principle of International Humanitarian Law


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

This quote by the Great Sun Tzu, the author of the book ‘The Art of War’, is probably one of the most stupendous and splendid thoughts which encapsulates the reasonings, notions, beliefs, rules, methods, tactics, perceptions and perspectives of warfare. Though the book is considered to be the ‘Bible’ of directing warfare, an artistry of strategic decision making process and a masterpiece of skillful approaches of war, it also regenerates the option of negotiation rather than war as one of the sayings of Sun Tzu reiterates- “Sweat more during peace, bleed less during war.”

While it is undeniably true that waging war is the ultimate peace-snatcher, on a different note, war is something inescapable for mankind and not necessarily thought as an outcome of wrath. Protection of sovereignty or homeland from foreign attack is a pretty strong, valid ground to fight for. Thus, stopping war is not in our hand, however, we can minimize the loss and damage, unnecessary hazards and sufferings. One of Sun Tzu’s famous sayings goes-

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry which can, on no account, be neglected.”

The flavour and essence of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is deeply rooted in this particular statement in which the inner meaning reveals the need of protection of inhabitants who are going to be affected by that war and that the decision is deadly crucial because many lives of innocent people rely upon it. IHL is the brain-child of Jean Pictet, who did feel the same humanity and necessity of setting up at least some sort of standards and rules as to the extent, nature, methods of destruction permissible during war and not beyond that.

Thus, ‘The Art of War’ reconnects the ancient philosophy, thinking, strategies, tactics, morals, means and methods to the modern principle of IHL, some of the significant quotes of Sun Tzu’s book are evident enough that it is the ancient instrument, the origin of the first Principles of IHL.

In Chapter 3 of ‘The Art of War’, named ‘Attack By Stratagem’, Sun Tzu said-

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not the supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Quite  surprisingly, the Fundamental Principles of International Humanitarian Law, identified by Jean Pictet, is the true reflection of this finest rule of Sun Tzu regarding warfare.

The principle states- Belligerents shall not inflict harm on their adversaries out of proportion with the object of warfare, which is to destroy or weaken the military strength of the enemy.

In Chapter 7 of ‘The Art of War’, named ‘Maneuvering’, Sun Tzu said-

“Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.” This is a very basic warfare ethics and IHL has its reflection too, as it is known as law of armed conflict or law of war. It has two prime branches, namely:

  • The ‘law of Geneva’ which is designed to safeguard military personnel who are no longer taking part in the fighting, including civilians;
  • The ‘law of Hague’ which establishes the rights and obligations of belligerents in the conduct of military operations and limits the means of harming the enemy.

In the same Chapter, another quote of Sun Tzu is found, which says-

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desparate foe too hard. Such is the art of warfare.”

Here, the saying has clear resemblance to ‘Principle of Inviolability’, one of the principles of one of the core IHL principles that is, Principles common to the Law of Geneva and of Human Rights. Principle of Inviolability affirms that- “A man who has fallen in combat is inviolable, an enemy surrendering shall have his life spared”. This has been enshrined in Article 41 of Protocol I. This Protocol confirms the protection of the combatants of the opponent party.

One of the noteworthy sayings of Sun Tzu, that relates to an essential IHL principle, is also mentioned in Chapter 7, which expresses that-

“In night fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums and in fighting by day, of flags and banners as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army. Communication is good, appropriate communication is the golden key.”

It can be said that present rules of displaying the sign of Red Cross or the Red Crescent emblem and signals in terms of medical personnel and carriers as well as institutions mentioned in the Second Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of the Armed Forces at Sea, 1949, have originated, to some extent, from the idea of this quote of Sun Tzu from his book ‘The Art of War’.

In Chapter 9, named ‘Army On The March’, Sun Tzu said- “Therefore, soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity…”

Thus, we can say, ‘The Art of War’ is the antic code of rules of warfare which in many angles, can be featured as the origin of principles of IHL. It can be concluded here by a quote of Sun Tzu-

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. There is no instance of a nation benefiting from a prolonged warfare.”



Evnat Bhuiyan

Student of LL.M, Department of Law, Jagannath University and

General Secretary, NILS JnU Chapter

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