Covenants without the Sword: International Law and the Protection of Civilians in Times of War

Do the international laws of war effectively protect civilian populations from deliberate attack? In a statistical analysis of all interstate wars from 1900 to 2003 the authors find no evidence that signatories of The Hague or Geneva Conventions intentionally kill fewer civilians during war than do nonsignatories. This result holds for democratic signatories and for wars in which both sides are parties to the treaty. Nor do they find evidence that a state's regime type or the existence of ethnic or religious differences between combatants explains the variation in civilian targeting. They find strong support, however, for their theoretical framework, which suggests that combatants seek to kill enemy civilians when they believe that doing so will coerce their adversaries into early surrender or undermine their adversaries' war-related domestic production. The authors find that states fighting wars of attrition or counterinsurgency, states fighting for expansive war aims, and states fighting wars of long duration kill significantly more civilians than states in other kinds of wars.