Actually, Katniss, There is a Rule Book

“I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.” –Katniss Everdeen

MockingjayIf you are familiar with the third installment of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, you know about the violent conflict between the Capitol and the Rebellion. Mockingjay is set in the fictional country of Panem, where both parties to the conflict operate without rules on how to conduct warfare. If they lived in our world, however, many of their actions would be violations of international humanitarian law—the laws of war contained in the Geneva Conventions—which all states have agreed to follow when engaging in armed conflict.

***SPOILER ALERT: This post describes some pretty crucial scenes in Mockingjay, the final book/film in the Hunger Games series. If you already know what happens in the third installment, you want to watch the newly released film through an IHL lens, or you don’t mind knowing some important details before you read the book/watch the movie, please read on! *** 

Clearly, Panem has not ratified the Geneva Conventions and President Coin, leader of the Rebellion, is not trying to abide by the law of armed conflict. But, what if international humanitarian law was in operation in Panem?

Determining whether there is an armed conflict is always the first step to decide whether international humanitarian law (IHL) applies since it only applies when there is an armed conflict. The type of armed conflict must also be determined in order to know what specific rules apply from the Geneva Conventions. If Panem was at war with another country, the rules of international armed conflict (IAC) would apply. Since the conflict in Panem is between the Capitol (state actor) and the Rebellion (non-state actor) this conflict would not qualify as an IAC. Instead, it looks like this conflict might qualify as a non-international armed conflict (NIAC).

For the situation of armed violence to qualify as a NIAC, the Rebellion must be an organized armed group and the intensity of violence between the Rebellion and the Capitol must reach a certain threshold. There is no exhaustive list of criteria to qualify the Rebellion as an “organized armed group” or the fighting as “intense violence”; however, many of the key factors often used by international tribunals and experts in classifying conflicts are present in the conflict described in Mockingjay.

For example, the Rebellion has a stated objective of unifying all the Districts against the Capitol (an identifiable goal), it is under the direction of District 13’s President Coin and other rebel leaders (formal leadership and hierarchy), many of the rebels carry arms openly (Katniss’s high-tech bow), and the Rebellion wears uniforms recognizable at a distance. In today’s world, these factors would likely convince most experts that the Rebellion is an organized armed group.

The next step is to determine whether the intensity of violence crosses the threshold to be considered an armed conflict. The Capitol’s attack on District 12 creates a substantial number of internally displaced persons and decimates the remainder of District 12’s civilian population. In addition, advanced weapons and frequent battles with high numbers of casualties suggest that the violence has reached a certain threshold above what would appear to be just an “internal disturbance.” The level of violence looks more like a war than, say, the protests in Hong Kong or Ferguson. In short, these characteristics definitely qualify the conflict in Panem as a NIAC.

Mockingjay PinInternational humanitarian law exists to protect those not participating in hostilities (civilians, wounded combatants, medics, etc.) from the effects of armed conflict. Specifically, parties to a conflict are not allowed to directly attack civilians or civilian objects—only combatants and military objectives. But neither side in the Hunger Games seems to adhere to that rule. In one scene, Capitol hover planes arrive in District 8 and bomb a hospital filled with wounded civilians and combatants. Later on, the Rebellion conducts an attack on the Nut, a mine in District 2 filled with civilians. Neither side considers the principle of distinction, which obligates parties to a conflict to only direct attacks toward combatants or military objectives. Nor do they consider the principle of proportionality, which prohibits parties from conducting an attack where civilian casualties are excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

And there are countless other events in the book that, when viewed through an IHL lens, represent perfect examples of violations of the rules of war: the torture of Peeta, planting booby traps to deny access to objects essential for the survival of civilians (like food and water sources), reprisals against the other party, the use of incendiary weapons, forced recruitment of children, and the use of human shields.

Unfortunately, it appears that in Panem there is no rule book on what might be unacceptable to do to another human being. However, the Geneva Conventions have been ratified by every state in our world and operate as our rule book on what is unacceptable to do to another human being, even in the worst of conflicts.

What other actions—by either the Rebellion or the Capitol—could be a violation of IHL? And what lessons can we learn from the good and bad examples set by the characters in the story? Let us know in the comments below!

5 responses to “Actually, Katniss, There is a Rule Book

  1. I’m thinking that The Capitol’s experimentation on human subjects/turning them into weapons qualifies as a crime against humanity.

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