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The 1923 Hague Rules of Air Warfare — A contribution to the development of international law protecting civilians from air attack*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2010


Historical events since 1939 and the only partially completed codification of the law of air warfare have made it one of the most controversial areas of the law of war. Though Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions does contain provisions governing air warfare, it has not yet assumed its due significance owing to the hesitancy shown in ratifying it. All the more importance must therefore be attributed to the historical development of such rules.

Air Warfare
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 1993

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1 Though many articles and theses have been written about the history of the law of air warfare with particular attention to the protection of the civilian population, few of them can be said to constitute a comprehensive study of the subject. In fact, an ever diminishing amount has been published about this problem, especially in recent years. Royse, M.V.'s Aerial Bombardment and the International Regulation of Warfare, Vinal, New York, 1928Google Scholar, remains a ‘classic’ in this area. Another important work is Spetzler, E.'s Luftkrieg und Menschlichkeit, Musterschmidt, Göttingen, 1956Google Scholar. Air Power and War Rights, the oft-praised book by Spaight, J.M., third edition, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1947Google Scholar, tends to assume the role of apologist. This, combined with a large number of erroneous quotations, limits its usefulness. The literature used in researching the present article is listed in the appended selective bibliography. Only occasionally, therefore, do the footnotes refer to them and then only by means of a brief quotation.

2 Schindler, D./Toman, J. (editors), The Laws of Armed Conflicts, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva, 1973, pp. 133 ff.Google Scholar

3 By the end of the First World War this declaration had lost its validity through disuse.

4 Bell, J. (editor), Völkerrecht im Weltkrieg, vol. 4, Berlin, Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte, 1927, p. 92Google Scholar; Garner, J.W., International Law and the World War, vol. 1, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1920, pp. 469 ff.Google Scholar

5 Garner, , op.cit. (fn 4), p. 470Google Scholar, and, in particular, Hanke, H.M., Luftkrieg und Zivilbevölkerung der kriegsvölkerrechtliche Schutz der Zivilbevölkerung gegen Luftbombardements von den Anfängen bis zum Ausbruch des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Annexes), P. Lang, Frankfurt/M.-Bern-New York-Paris, 1991, pp. 46 ff.Google Scholar; on the other hand, see thorough study by K.H. Kunzmann (pp. 172 ff.) who opposes the idea that there was a steady shift to the requirement of a military objective.

6 Concerning the significance of this principle in the development of customary international law in the First World War, see Hanke, (bibl.) pp. 42 ff.Google Scholar

7 Concerning these drafts, see Hanke (bibl.) pp. 60 ff. and, in particular, his quotation of them in Annex B.

8 La guerre aérienne, révision des his de la guerre, The Hague, 19221923, pp. 150 ff.Google Scholar

9 For the exact list of Commission members, see ibid., pp. 5 ff. and Moore, J.B. (bibliography) pp. 182 ffGoogle Scholar. All subsequent quotations may be found in those two fundamental works.

10 The Hague Rules on the use of radiotelegraphy in wartime are printed in Guerre aérienne (fn 8) pp. 232 ff.Google Scholar, 17 American Journal of International Law (AJIL) 1923 (Suppl.), pp. 242 ff.Google Scholar; 32 AJIL 1938 (Suppl.), pp. 2 ff. (General report of the Commission).

11 The English text of the Hague Rules of Air Warfare may be found in the following publications: 17 AJIL 1923 (Suppl.), pp. 246 ff.Google Scholar; Deltenre, M. (ed.), Recueil général des his et coutumes de la guerre terrestre, maritime, sous-marine et aérienne, Wellers-Pay, Brussels, 1943; pp. 823 ffGoogle Scholar. (also contains the French, Dutch and German versions); Schindler, /Toman, , op.cit., pp. 139 ff.Google Scholar; Friedman, L. (ed.), The laws of war. A documentary history, vol 1, Random House, New York, 1972, pp. 473 ffGoogle Scholar. The German version may also be found in Hinz, J./Rauch, E. (editors), Kriegsvölkerrecht, 3. Aufl., Heymann, Köln-Berlin-Bonn-München, 1984Google Scholar, No. 1534;

The text annotated with the Commission's commentary may be found in 32 AJIL 1938 (Suppl), pp. 12 ff.Google Scholar; text with commentary by the Commission: Guerre aérienne, p. 242 ffGoogle Scholar. (in French); Rivista di Diritto Internazionale 1923, p. 55 ff. (in French).Google Scholar

12 See Garner, J.W.'s “International regulation of air warfare” in Air Law Review, 1932Google Scholar; Castrén, E., “La protection juridique de la population civile dans la guerre moderne” in Revue générate de droit international public (RGDIP), 59, 1, 1955, p. 12.Google Scholar

13 von der Heydte, F.A.'s “Haager Luftkriegsregeln von 1923” in Schlochauer, H.G. (editor), Wörterbuch des Völkerrechts, vol. 2, de Gruyter, Berlin, 19601961, p. 442Google Scholar; Wilhelm, R.J., “Les Conventions de Genève et la guerre aérienne” in Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No. 397, 01 1952, p. 12.Google Scholar

14 Charpentier, J., L'humanisation de la guerre aérienne, Les Editions internationales, Paris, 1938, pp. 81 ff.Google Scholar; Lauterpacht, H., “The problem of the revision of the law of war” in British Yearbook of International Law (BYIL), 1952, pp. 367 ff.Google Scholar

15 Spaight, , Air Power and War Rights, op.cit., pp. 244 ff.Google Scholar

16 Riesch, E., “Das Luftkriegsrecht seit dem Weltkrieg” in Militärwiss. Rundschau, 1940, p. 180Google Scholar; according to Erdelbrock, A., Das Luftbombardement: Eine Darstellung der für das Luftbombardement geltenden Völkerrechtssätze im Anschluss an das Urteil des Deutsch-Griechischen gemischten Schiedsgerichts vom 1. Dezember 1927, thesis, Bonner Universitats-Buchdruckerei, Tubingen & Bonn, 1929, p. 58Google Scholar, the failure to adopt the Hague Rules is attributable to maliciousness pure and simple.

17 The following authors are sharply critical of the tendency to concentrate on ius contra bellum as one of the reasons for not adopting the Hague Rules: Charpentier, , op.cit., p. 124Google Scholar; Spaight, , Air Power and War Rights, op.cit., p. 244Google Scholar; see in particular Kunz, , “The chaotic status of the laws of war, and the urgent necessity of their revision” in AJIL 1951, pp. 38 ff.Google Scholar

18 PRO (Public Records Office, London) AIR 5/568, 12 C; Art. 34 of the draft, however, contained a brief list of objects that could be bombarded under any circumstances. On the other hand, Art. 36 of the text submitted by the British in Washington contained a detailed demonstrative list, something that was again lacking in The Hague (PRO AIR 5/568, 45 A, p. 17). See Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

19 For this and subsequent passages see Guerre aérienne, op. cit., passim.

20 PRO AIR 5/192, 1 A, p. 2.

21 Guerre aérienne, op.cit., pp. 195 ff.Google Scholar

22 Ibid., p. 101: “1° le bombardement aérien n'est licite que lorsqu'il est dirigé exclusivement contre les objectifs suivants: …”.

23 Ibid., p. 121.

24 Ibid., p. 101: “2° … Au cas où des objectifs qui peuvent être soumis au bombardement … se trouvent à proximité de villes, de villages ou d'habitations civiles quelconques, le bombardement n'en pourra être effectué qu'à la condition qu'aucun dommage ne soit subi par la population civile.

Au cas où cette condition ne pourrait être respectée de façon absolue, l'aéronef devra s'abstenir du bombardement”.

25 Even the otherwise so pessimistic Lauterpacht, , “The problem of the revision of the law of war”, op.cit., p. 369Google Scholar, reaffirmed that terror bombing was prohibited. On the distinction between civilians and combatants (problem of the “quasi combatant”), see Hanke, , op.cit., pp. 107 ff.Google Scholar

26 Guldimann, W., Luftkriegsrecht (thesis submitted in Basel in 1940), p. 67Google Scholar, considers the abstract definition in Art. 24 of the Hague Rules to be too narrow. Rosenblad, E., “Area bombing and international law” in Revue de droit pénal militaire et de droit de la guerre, 1976, p. 90Google Scholar, accepts the definition only when combined with a demonstrative list. Absolute rejection will be found in Randelzhofer, A., “Flächenbombardement und Völkerrecht” in Um Recht und Freiheit, Kipp, H./Mayer, F. (editors), Dunker & Humblot, Berlin, 1977, p. 483.Google Scholar

27 For example Meyer, , op.cit., p. 83Google Scholar; Rosenblad, , op.cit., p. 90Google Scholar; Sibert, M., expert opinion in La protection des populations civiles contre les bombardements, Hammarskjöld, A./Macdonogh, G./Royse, M.W. et al. (editors), Geneva, 1930, pp. 155 ff.Google Scholar; Spetzler, , op.cit., p. 179.Google Scholar

28 A generally favourable view of the list in Art. 24, para. 2, of the Hague Rules is taken by Gosnell, , op.cit., p. 240Google Scholar; Spetzler, , op.cit., pp. 175 ff.Google Scholar; Wilhelm, , op.cit., p. 14.Google Scholar

29 See Hanke, , op.cit., pp. 58f.Google Scholar

30 ILA Report on the 33rd Conference 1924, pp. 114 ff.

31 Schindler, /Toman, , op.cit., pp. 155 ff.Google Scholar

32 The text may be found in Deltenre, , op.cit., pp. 850 ff.Google Scholar; de Lapradelle, A./Voncken, J./Dehousse, F., La reconstruction du droit de la guerre, Bruylant, Brussels, 1936, pp. 61 ff.Google Scholar; further to this subject see Clémens, R., Le projet de Monaco: Le droit et la guerre, Villes sanitaires et villes de sécurité. Assistance sanitaire internationale, Recueil Sirey, Paris, 1937Google Scholar; it is also reproduced in part in Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

33 Further to the disarmament conference see Henderson, A., Preliminary Report on the Work of the Conference, Geneva 1936.Google Scholar

34 Note of 7 July 1932 (PRO AIR 8/155): “The Air Ministry consequently advocate the adoption of the Hague Rules”. Extracts from relevant documents appear in Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

35 Memorandum from the Committee of Imperial Defence, entitled “The restriction of air warfare”, of 1 03 1938, p. 4Google Scholar: “For this reason, there would be grave dangers for this country in any international agreement to impose restrictions on air action which could, in the event, be easily violated” (PRO AIR 8/155).

36 For example, the note of 14 October 1932 (PRO AIR 8/141): “… but that in any case His Majesty's Government should state that they were prepared to accept as a basis for further elaboration the rules for air bombardment contained in the Hague Draft of 1922–1923”.

37 von Nostitz-Wallwitz, Otto, “Das Kriegsrecht im Italienisch-Abessinischen Krieg”, ZaöRV 1936, p. 720Google Scholar; Arthur T. Harris, later famous as head of the RAF's Bomber Command, raged against this decision by the British Government as early as 18 June 1936: “The so-called Hague rules are not internationally binding in so far as they were never internationally accepted, they were in fact violently opposed” (PRO AIR 8/155).

38 PRO AIR 8/155: part of text included in Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

39 PRO AIR 8/283; see Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

40 Ibid., covering letter from the Air Ministry: “The Council desire to emphasise that these instructions do not necessarily represent the policy that would be pursued by His Majesty's Government throughout a war”.

41 At Britain's instigation, this statement was adopted virtually word for word by the League of Nations in the form of a resolution on 30 September 1938. Text: Schindler, /Toman, , op.cit., pp. 153 ff.Google Scholar

42 Art. 12 of the “Instructions” and their covering letter, op.cit.

43 Plans for attack on German war industry in relation to … international law as represented by the basic principles of war and the Draft Hague Rules of Air Warfare, p. 5 (PRO AIR 8/283): “… they are in fact covered by the principles set out in Article 24/(1), … This statement is the more weighty, since it has the warrant of international law, …”, text in Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

44 Instructions Governing Naval and Air Bombardment, Art. 9(a).

45 Ibid., Art. 9(c).

46 Ibid.: “Thus it is clearly illegal to bombard a populated area in the hope of hitting a legitimate target which is known to be in the area, but which cannot be precisely located and identified”.

47 Ibid., Art. 10.

48 BA/MA (Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv, Freiburg/Br.), RW 5/v. 336; see Hanke, , op.cit., Annex B.Google Scholar

49 Germany having withdrawn from the League of Nations in 1933, it is startling to note that Point 24 contained a virtually word-for-word translation of Art. 1, para. 3 of the League of Nations resolution of 30 September 1938 (see fn. 41): “Any attack on legitimate military objectives must be carried out in such a way that civilian populations in the neighbourhood are not bombed through negligence”.

50 Ray, J., “Les bombardements aériens: Quelques aspects de la position prise par le Japon”, in Revue générate de droit aérien, 1938, p. 418.Google Scholar

51 Note of 8 October 1932, PRO AIR 8/141; however, Spetzler, (op.cit., p. 221)Google Scholar goes too far when he claims that “the Great Powers, including the United States, made it clear” that they would tacitly recognize the Hague Rules.

52 HRC (U.S. Air Force Historical Research Center, Montgomery, Alabama), 168.65404–4.

53 HRC 248.101–16, p. 31: “When control of the air has been gained, then military objectives other than the hostile air force will receive increasing attention, including perhaps political capitals and centers of population”.

54 The author's thesis is devoted to showing that aerial bombardment is covered by customary international law. Other projects by the author to be completed in the near future deal with the extent to which this customary law was observed in practice in aerial warfare during the Second World War.

55 In 1949 the International Law Commission refused to discuss a revision of the law of war on the grounds that “war having been outlawed, the regulation of its conduct had ceased to be relevant”. See Kunz, , “The chaotic status”…, op.cit., pp. 42 ff.Google Scholar

56 In Schindler, /Toman, , op.cit., pp. 179 ff.Google Scholar

57 Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, Sandoz, Y./Swinarski, C./Zimmermann, B. (editors), ICRC, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Geneva, 1987Google Scholar, contains only a brief paragraph on the Hague Rules (pp. 603 ff.) while in the commentary by Bothe, M./Partsch, K.J./Solf, W.A., New rules for victims of armed conflicts, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague-Boston-London, 1982Google Scholar, they are ignored completely.

58 There was some debate during the negotiations as to whether, in determining whether a specific object should be considered as military or civilian in nature, different criteria should be applied depending on its proximity to the front. See ibid., p. 326, but compare that with p. 307 of the same work. See also Commentary on the Additional Protocols, op.cit., pp. 620 ff.Google Scholar

59 Ibid., pp. 632 ff.; Bothe, /Partsch, /Solf, , op.cit., pp. 321 ff.Google Scholar

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