By Gordon Williams & Betsy Robertson

May 4th is Star Wars day (May the ‘Fourth’ be with you) and many observed the day by dueling with lightsabers or parsing the syntax of Yoda. At the American Red Cross, led by members of our Youth Action Campaign, we took an academic approach – by studying International Humanitarian Law and the Rules of War, and applying them to a galaxy far, far away.

While warfare seems to lack anything resembling a code of conduct, there are rules all combatants pledge to obey. The rules are the result of multiple conferences, including the Geneva conventions that followed World War 2.

The rules fall under the umbrella of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and are regularly taught to community members and organizations by Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers.

This Star Wars Day 2021, however, presented a unique opportunity to bring International Humanitarian Law to full-screen and multi-colored life.

The webinar led by two Washington D.C. based lawyers on the IHL team was recorded and is available on the Rules of War website now (scroll to the bottom). Thomas Harper and Christian Jorgensen brilliantly illustrated both their fandom and their knowledge of IHL – to the point we could argue – “the force is strong with” these two.

They explain, one rule of war is “distinction.” Meaning warring parties must draw a clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Combatants (Storm Troopers, the Rebel force) –those engaged in battle–are obviously fair game for enemy fire. Civilians (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru), who might find themselves in the war zone should have been left untouched.

Consider the Battle of Endor, where the empire is building a death star and the rebel forces are trying to destroy it before it can be used to destroy them. The problem says Harper is that the empire is using vast numbers of contractors to build the death star. Non-combatants–but they are building a super-weapon that will be used in combat.

Are contractors employed by the empire fair game? Harper concedes there is no easy answer. “You try to spare noncombatants, but you can’t take the chaos and destruction out of war,” he says. “All you can do is try to limit it.”

Another rule of war is necessity. Is it militarily necessary to do what you are doing? If the death star is completed it could be used to enslave the galaxy. “Destroying it would present a distinct military advantage,” Harper says. “You have to balance the scale–loss of civilians versus military gain.”

Still another consideration is proportionality–whether the scale of response to an act of war is appropriate to the act itself. In this case, building the death star is an act of war that if allowed to go unchecked could punish the whole empire. 

Some of the laws of war were put in place even before the Geneva Convention rules were written. As Jorgensen points out, there is a rich history of naval law, governing wartime conduct at sea.

Case-in-point is when Darth Vader seeks to board a vessel carrying Princess Leia. The princess claims sovereign immunity–that Vader has no legal right to board her vessel. Darth Vader in turn says he has reason to believe the vessel is a warship loaded with weapons. He boards the vessel and then brutally interrogates the crew members he has taken prisoner.

Jorgensen’s take is that the law of the sea gives Darth Vader a legal right to board the ship. But Vader crosses that line when he brutalizes prisoners. “That violates multiple conventions,” Jorgensen says.

Harper raises the question of what should be expected from parties that have not signed onto any of the rules of war. Are you bound by the rules even if you have not been schooled in IHL? The answer, says Harper, is “yes”. He cites the case of the Ewoks–charming, furry creatures who live in total isolation on one of the moons of Endor. Upon closer analysis, not so innocent at all. What were they planning to do with Han Solo before “the golden one” spared him from the flames?

Screenshot from presentation

Still, the Ewoks have signed no treaties governing warfare. In fact, they have no inkling of International Humanitarian Law. There should still exist an implicit sense of right and wrong.

“There is no need to sign a treaty to know what can and can’t be done,” Harper says. “Ewoks may not know about International Humanitarian Law, but that doesn’t mean they are free to eat their prisoners.”

Safe to say, you may never look at Ewok’s or the Star Wars universe quite the same way again.

For more insight into the Rules of War and how they can be studied and thoughtfully applied, please visit and click on the Youth Action Campaign.

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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