Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the First Principles of International Humanitarian Law


Sun Tzu’s Art of War is one of the most influential treatises on the conduct of armed conflicts. Despite having been written around 500 B. C., the Art of War still commands a huge readership throughout the world today. Parallels have been drawn between Sun Tzu’s teachings and a Machiavellian notion of morality and war, and Sun Tzu’s rules are sometimes thought to be amoral and utilitarian. This post suggests that a closer analysis of this seminal treatise shows a balance of humanitarian considerations with the shrewd art of winning wars, casting light on Sun Tzu’s teachings as the forerunners of modern principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

The Art of War must be interpreted in light of the historical context in which it was written. Before Sun Tzu, wars used to be ritualistic, governed by considerations of farming seasons and cultural traditions, thus not causing much humanitarian consequences. Over time, warfare became systematic and institutionalised violent destruction, due to the rise of professionalism in military and technological development. Exposure to such ruinous warfare induced Sun Tzu to devise principles of war that not only guide generals on the use of military strategies, but also principles that are grounded with military ethics and humanitarian ideals. Centuries later, this incipient progression towards humane warfare culminated in Henry Dunant, after his transformative experience at Solferino, laying down the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as the genesis of modern IHL, the fulcrum of which is the principle of humanity from which all other principles are derived.

Humanitarian Considerations in Art of War

Sun Tzu recognises war as a political necessity. He advocates the balancing of military conduct with humanitarian considerations, propelled by Confucian virtues, especially ren (benevolence) and yi (righteousness). He thus argues for restraint, both in initiating (jus ad bellum) as well as in conducting war (jus in bello), as his pinnacle of military excellence is to defeat the enemy without any violence [III:2]. This is not merely a utilitarian approach, but it is grounded in moral considerations, which is most evident in his rule on treating prisoners of war (“PoWs”) with dignity [II:17]. Sun Tzu also provides that an army returning home or soldiers fleeing are not an object of attack [VII:35]. Such views were radically against the prevalent military wisdom: PoWs were not considered trustworthy enough to be incorporated into one’s army, and it was considered more prudent to eliminate  them in order to maximize the chances of future military successes. These principles, as advocated by Sun Tzu, despite being technically disadvantageous to the armies, were founded on the superior necessity of preserving human life. More than 2 millennia later, such principles are mirrored today in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.

The protection of civilians and their property is an underlying theme that runs throughout the Art of War. Sun Tzu provides that the main object of war is victory, but without protracted violence [II:6; III:2–3]. This is comparable to the fundamental IHL principle of distinction, first codified in the St. Petersburg Declaration, according to which the only legitimate objective of war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy. Sun Tzu advocates that the highest realisation of warfare is attacking the enemy’s plans, next is to disrupt alliances, then to attack their army, and last is to attack cities, which must be pursued as a last resort [III:3]. The prohibition on attacking cities is also apparent in the Art of War’s chapter on attack by stratagem. It needs to be noted here that Sun Tzu is not discussing mere military strategy, but the fundamental objectives of war. He thus emphasises that killing civilians is not the objective, [II:19] and that the best policy is to take a State intact [III:1], which is in consonance with the principle of distinction. The devastating humanitarian consequences of urban warfare and sieges in modern warfare show the contemporary relevance of Sun Tzu’s teachings.

Sun Tzu advocates preserving an enemy’s country, army, regiment, detachment, or company over destroying them [III:1]. This is more than just a strategic consideration, and is grounded in morality. Sun Tzu’s progression of objectives in war, are attacking the enemy’s plans, alliances, army; and lastly fortified cities [III:3]. Thus, preservation and destruction must be understood, not as a dichotomy, but as a matter of degree. Therefore, even when there is a recourse to armed force, it must be used to gain victory in the shortest possible time; least possible cost in lives; and with infliction of the least casualties on the enemy. It corresponds with the fundamental idea of IHL, as was first provided in the Lieber Code; necessity only of measures indispensable for securing the ends of the war. This is tied with the prohibition of superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, as it cannot be considered “indispensable” for securing the ends of the war. This can further be traced to the principle of proportionality requiring any incidental injury to civilian to be proportional to the military advantage expected.


It is unfortunate that the Art of War is revered only for its military strategies, while its humanitarian admonitions are sidelined. Such an interpretation is not only reductive, but may also lead (or has indeed led) to disastrous consequences. The Chinese State of Qin for example, followed Sun Tzu’s strategies, while ignoring his overarching principle of preservation over destruction. It conquered six other States, but at the cost of leaving a trail of destruction because of its ruthlessness in war.

In modern times, China’s interpretation of the Art of War as a tool to guide and illuminate its present military conduct is limited to jus ad bellum – to the exclusion of jus in bello -. This unfortunately incentivises the predominantly utilitarian interpretation as the prevailing narrative. This can be problematic as the Art of War, even today, has found application in various military operations around the world, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, one must look beyond mere utilitarianism and recognise the latent underpinnings of humanitarian considerations in the Art of War, which later gained prominence through the work of luminaries like Henry Dunant and Jean Pictet. In the words of Jean-Pictet, “when different customs, ethics and philosophies are gathered for comparison, and when they are melted down, their particularities eliminated and only what is general extracted, one is left with a pure substance which is the heritage of all mankind”. In conclusion, due credit must be given to Sun Tzu for thousands of years ago, he foreshadowed the origins of the first principles of IHL.