What guidance can Buddhism provide to those involved in armed conflict and to belligerents who must perhaps kill or be killed or defend their families, communities or countries from attack? How, moreover, does Buddhism compare with international humanitarian law (IHL) – otherwise known as the law of armed conflict – which protects non-combatants and restricts the means and methods of warfare to limit the suffering it causes? Despite the prevalence of armed conflict in parts of the Buddhist world, few contemporary studies have addressed these questions.

In a joint initiative by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with leading Buddhist scholars and practitioners, the first major study on the intersection between Buddhist teachings and IHL has now been published by Routledge. It is part of an ICRC project which seeks to explore correspondences between Buddhist and IHL principles, and identify Buddhist resources to improve compliance with IHL and equivalent Buddhist or humanitarian norms.

While there is a wealth of material on Buddhist conflict prevention and resolution, remarkably little attention has been paid to what Buddhism says about the actual conduct of war. IHL is also still relatively little known in the Buddhist world and might not therefore influence the behaviour of belligerents who self-identify as Buddhists and are perhaps more likely to be guided by Buddhist principles. This study fills this gap by exploring the subject matter from multiple perspectives, drawing on authoritative Buddhist texts, common practices and historical examples, as well as the direct experience of those involved in situations of armed conflict. “Though both Buddhism and international humanitarian law have exactly the same intention to reduce human suffering, this ICRC-supported book represents the first concerted effort to bring them together,” said Ven. Khammai Dhammasami of Shan State Buddhist University.

“This book is an extraordinary collaboration between monastics, military chaplains, experts in international humanitarian law, and elite scholars of Buddhist ethics from diverse cultural contexts,” said Prof. Stephen Jenkins from Humboldt State University. “As such, it is a valuable primary text that documents the current range of thinking about Buddhist conduct during warfare.”

To improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action and ultimately reduce suffering during armed conflict, the ICRC explores correspondences between many normative traditions and IHL. Beyond the confines of the law, the realm of culture, religion and ethics directly taps into people’s identities, moral values, and underlying motivations, potentially impacting compliance with IHL and the limits within which hostilities are conducted. “This pioneering book illustrates how the Buddhist middle-way and its mindfulness techniques can nurture the self-control and sense of moderation necessary to humanise war and prevent its worst excesses,” said Prof. Vitit Muntarbhorn from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Warfare has always been subject to certain principles and customs, and IHL is built on this historical legacy. The core of IHL is formed by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, their Additional Protocols, and Customary IHL. Its purpose is to minimize suffering during armed conflict by protecting those who do not – or no longer – participate directly in hostilities, and by regulating the means and methods of warfare.

The book has been published in Open Access and can be downloaded for free.

Its print version can be obtained from Routledge.