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Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK

War: Is this it or not?

It looks like war, sounds like war and, to all intents and purposes, is war.

But according to Nato, the intensive bombing campaign against the Serbian regime is not a war. At least not in the traditional sense.

In a recent statement, the alliance secretary-general, Javier Solana, reiterated, "Nato is not at war with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia".

Although Slobodan Milosevic has announced a "state of war" in Yugoslavia, the allied powers speak of "military action", "air attacks", and an "offensive".

"War", it seems, is a dirty word in the West.

[ image: Milosevic has declared a
Milosevic has declared a "state of war"
Terry Taylor, assistant director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees. "No one declares war anymore these days. There's no requirement to," he says.

In fact there never has been. When Neville Chamberlain addressed the British people in 1939 with the words "...this country is at war with Germany..." he was indulging in a spot of politics, says Mr Taylor.

"The act of declaring war is a practice from the 18th, 19th and early 20th Century. It's a political statement. It's never been part of the legal requirement."

Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in 1939
Although both the UK and US have been involved in many military conflicts over the past 50 years, formal declarations are increasingly rare. "War" was never declared in the cases of Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands or Iraq, although history books record them as such.

What is war?

Dr John Stone, of Kings College's department of war studies in London, defines war as: "An act of force which is intended to compel your enemy to do your will."

[ image: Chamberlain: Britain's last leader formally to declare war]
Chamberlain: Britain's last leader formally to declare war
He explains the change in attitude towards formal declaration thus: "I think it's because we were conditioned between 1945 and the late 1980s to think of war in terms of nuclear war. But the fact was that during that time, British forces were engaged in armed conflict around the world - Malaya, Borneo and, of course, Northern Ireland."

There are also practical considerations, particularly for the United States, where Congress must pass a resolution to issue a formal declaration of war. That could have proved tricky for President Bill Clinton, who faced scepticism from some Republicans. (The UK prime minister need only exercise his powers under the Royal Prerogative.)

Nevertheless, says Mr Taylor, the two main treaties which govern the conduct of war, the Hague and Geneva conventions, do apply.

No declaration required

These treaties which set out strict international laws governing warfare do not rely on an official declaration.

"As soon as the first Tomahawk missile was fired [on Serbia] we were in a state of international armed conflict, which is simply a formal term for war."

Therefore, although Nato seldom uses the term "war", it sets out to abide by the rules of war and would, no doubt, insist Yugoslavia do so as well. All of which means that this is every bit as much a war, as the Gulf, the Falklands or World War II.

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