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Keynote: The Recent Evolution of Int'l Law of Armed Conflict: Confusions, Constraints, & Challenges

Updated: May 12, 2020

Author: Dr. Yoram Dinstein



1. The distinct honor conferred on me touches my heart, but I promise you that it will not go to my head. I realize that basically I am honored because I have reached an advanced age. Nevertheless, perhaps that age enables me to fully appreciate the trajectory of legal progress made in the past few decades. I was asked by the organizers of this conference to look back to my formative years and share with you insights as regards international law and the law of armed conflict (LOAC). Doing so, what comes first to mind is the unprecedented, immense growth of international law. The universe of international law appears to be very much like the physical universe: it is constantly expanding. There are at present many domains of international law that were entirely unknown when I graduated from law school, got my LL.M. degree, and wrote my doctoral thesis: nobody in those distant days heard of jus cogens or erga omnes norms; nobody was gazing up into outer space or staring down into the deep seabed; a permanent international criminal court did not loom on the horizon; and international environmental law was unexplored ground.

2. A more profound change relates not to the quantitative growth of international law but to its qualitative standing. When I started my academic career as a teacher, international law seemed to my students to be far removed from what they encountered in their studies in other legal courses and what they were likely to pursue as practitioners subsequent to graduation. The common cynical comment at the time was that international law is what the virtuous do not need and the wicked do not obey. The main hurdle was to convince students that international law merited being recognized as true law. This is no longer an issue today. International law has been elevated from a Wagnerian Netherworld to the spotlight of the center-stage. Hardly a day goes by when international law is not in the news, usually on the front pages of the world press. More to the point, perhaps, there is a considerable number of lawyers in many countries—including, to their own surprise, a few of my former students—who actually earn a living thanks to international law.

3. As for LOAC, only half a century ago—to return to the metaphor of international law as a universe—it could be described (in the “Star Wars” lingo) as “a galaxy far, far away.” I often feel nostalgia for that long-gone era when LOAC was left alone by non-specialists. At that remote time, in the civil society, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was focusing on this subject (and it was carrying out its mission with panache and professionalism). At present, almost every “do-good” NGO in the world wants “a piece of the action” (whether or not it passes muster in terms of proper professional expertise). The overall setting is like that of a chess game, which attracts a host of kibitzers. Kibitzers (a Yiddish term that has entered the Webster Dictionary) are spectators who pester the actual players with unsolicited advice and unwarranted critique. The reason for the large number of kibbitzers who feel impelled to offer running commentaries on LOAC operations is the desire to impress the galleries of public onlookers. The public, once not particularly engagéin the legal intricacies of armed conflict, has a craving now for a steady diet of spicy LOAC tidbits of information. Unfortunately, the public cannot always tell the difference between what is said by the kibitzersand what is done by the actual players. Populist absorption of LOAC norms and terminology can be superficial and even misleading. This can become embarrassing, as witnessed over and over again on TV news programs or talk shows, when the name of the Geneva Conventions is taken in vain: they are frequently confused with other instruments and cited even when they are utterly irrelevant to the subject at hand.

4. LOAC is divided into two parts, pertaining to international and non-international armed conflicts (IACs and NIACs). IACs law started to evolve in the mid-nineteenth century, whereas NIACs law made its first steps only in the mid-twentieth century. Currently, most armed conflicts in the world are NIACs. Colombia has just emerged from a prolonged internal armed conflict. But large-scale NIACs are currently raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Philippines, as well as in many countries in Africa; and the blood-letting is enormous. Although by now there is a great deal of convergence of the two branches of LOAC, there has been no change at all in three cardinal points of divergence:

(a) The Charter of the United Nations proscribes the use of force in the relations between states: this is nowadays the most important brick in the edifice of international law. Contrarily, neither the Charter nor any other global treaty prohibits the use of force within a state. An insurgency runs counter to the domestic law of the state concerned, but international law maintains silence on the outbreak of internal strife.

(b) LOAC confers on combatants in IACs who get captured by the enemy a privileged status of prisoners of war, which safeguards their life and health although it subjects them to incarceration until the cessation of active hostilities. Prisoners of war are not to be put on trial for waging war unless they have acted in serious breach of LOAC. Insurgent fighters in NIACs do not benefit from a parallel privilege. They can be prosecuted in regular domestic courts—on the ground of taking up arms against the government—and punished as ordinary felons, despite the fact that their conduct fully corresponded with the strictures of LOAC.

(c) The law of belligerent occupation, which is quite extensive in scope, is applicable exclusively in IACs. Simply stated, there is no belligerent occupation in a NIAC. When, for example, a Syrian city falls into the hands of insurgents or is retaken by the incumbent government, it cannot be regarded as occupied territory in the sense of LOAC in either case.

5. What I have just said should be sufficient to denote that LOAC is multifaceted. Many of you deal with issues relating to the classical C3: command, control, and communications. When I take stock of LOAC, I find it necessary to grapple with a different C3: confusions, constraints, and challenges. I would like to share with you five of each category.


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