In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” fans finally see whether Katniss, the series’ determined heroine, can successfully steer the rebelling districts towards victory against President Snow, the Capitol autocracy’s brutal leader.
Katniss, Gale (her fellow soldier and love interest), and other characters struggle to define what, if any, limits exist during war. Had international humanitarian law (IHL) – a body of law that seeks to limit the harmful effects of armed conflict – existed in their world, they would have been able to determine some of those limits. Here are three examples of how IHL shows up in the most recent Hunger Games installment:
Warning: Potential Spoilers!
1) Treatment of Civilians
I’m sure she wasn’t gunning for your sister, but these things happen in war. – President Snow
Katniss and Gale hold an extended debate over whether it is appropriate to harm civilians during war. Gale believes that no one who supports the Capitol is innocent and, due to Snow’s torture of Peeta, any measures taken by the Rebellion are justified. Katniss reminds Gale that killing is always personal, the Rebellion must remain morally above the Capitol’s inhumane tactics, and ultimately those orchestrating the fight are responsible for their actions – not civilians.
While IHL does allow for civilian injury in some circumstances (often the term “collateral damage” is used), intentionally attacking civilians is never permitted unless they are participating in the hostilities. The bombing of children and other civilians seeking refuge in Snow’s mansion, staged by the Rebellion and pinned on the Capitol, did not follow this rule. Although the attack ended the war, it had disastrous consequences, including the death of Katniss’ sister, Prim. Both sides condemned the bombing, for even Snow’s soldiers had families that were in harm’s way.
2) Heinous Weapons
We will turn their advance into a celebration of suffering. – President Snow
The Capitol’s continued use of “Pods,” essentially enhanced landmines, results in multiple injuries and deaths in Katniss’ unit of Rebellion fighters. The pods are planted every ten steps across the Capitol and are set off by stepping on a ground trigger. They use everything from wall-mounted machine guns to flame torches and floods of oil to maim and kill.
IHL bans weapons, like Pods, that cause unnecessary suffering to fighters. This principle aims to eliminate excess pain and injury that is not necessary to win the war. While everyone injured or killed by the Pods in the film were members of the Rebellion, the Pods could have killed civilians as well. If left intact, they could remain a hazard for decades to come. IHL maintains that when landmines are used, particular care must be taken to minimize their indiscriminate effects for precisely this reason.
3) Child Soldiers
With that kind of thinking you can kill whoever [sic] you want. You can send kids off to the Hunger Games to keep the Districts in line. – Katniss
Due to the mature actors cast in “Mockingjay Part 2,” it is easy to forget the original abhorrent premise of the Hunger Games – the use of child soldiers, which is prohibited by IHL and other bodies of law. The Hunger Games movie series, and other popular films such as Ender’s Game, often end by painting child soldiers in a heroic light, celebrating their eventual victory over their oppressors (i.e. Katniss defeats Snow). However, this outcome is unique to the dystopian fiction genre.
It is estimated that over 250,000 children are currently recruited as soldiers. Often these children do not achieve such a happy ending. Both Katniss and Peeta show symptoms of posttraumatic stress after fighting and being subject to torture – including nightmares and hallucinations – but eventually receive medical treatment. However, children caught in real-world conflicts often do not escape. Or if they do, the resources to process their trauma are not always available.
While the laws of our world do not extend to fictional Panem, the characters in “Mockingjay” bring some of IHL’s rules, principles, and debates to life. The Hunger Games shows us that without rules of war, the battlefield is simply an arena – so may the law be ever in your favor.
 There are multiple international legal standards protecting children from military recruitment or use in hostilities. Some outlaw the involvement of children under age 15 in hostilities, while some raise the standard of age to 18. This is an ongoing debate. Katniss was 16 at the time of her participation in the 74th Hunger Games (the first movie). For more information on international legal standards regulating the recruitment and use of child soldiers, see: http://www.child-soldiers.org/international_standards.php.