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War Crimes and Just War Theory

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Abstract

Revisionist just war theory has gained considerable traction in recent years, debunking long-standing principles in the morality of war. This development cannot be ignored by war crimes lawyers. Philosophers on both sides of these debates as well as many lawyers understand the attacked principles to provide the moral underpinning of the contemporary war crimes regime. This perceived tension is erroneous. A panoramic view of the applicable law reveals it to be more revisionist in its moral posture than is ordinarily recognized. First, increasing recognition of the applicability of international human rights law in armed conflict reflects growing skepticism of the normative exceptionalism of war. Second, the criminalization of aggression reflects the moral inequality of combatants. Third, the legal distinction between civilians and combatants is understood best through a combination of individual liability and necessity—principles that can be accommodated in more nuanced ways as human rights law gains traction. Gaps remain, but there is more common ground between international law and revisionist theory than either lawyers or theorists tend to recognize.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This is not to say that all unjust combatants are liable to be killed (a point addressed below). Rather, it is to say that the jus ad bellum is a relevant factor in liability.

  2. 2.

    As noted above, many of these features are woven into orthodox thought. The key difference is that revisionists are more likely to identify them as either excuses or limited and contingent grounds for non-attribution.

  3. 3.

    To be clear, the question of whether an action qualifies as an international use of force for the purposes of the jus ad bellum does not map perfectly onto whether it qualifies as an international armed conflict for the purpose of IHL—the use of proxy forces in some circumstances may constitute an aggression without creating an IAC—but the basic point holds. On this, see, for example, Nicaragua (1986, ¶¶191–195; 228–230).

  4. 4.

    In a technical sense, one might question whether the category “combatants” exists in NIACs . However, there clearly is a classification between civilians protected from attack and persons legally liable to attack in NIACs, whatever terminology one uses to describe the latter.

  5. 5.

    Article 1(4) of Additional Protocol I of 1977 grants the privileges of belligerency to non-state groups fighting wars of self-determination against alien occupation, racist regimes, or colonial domination. This provision has remained entirely dormant, but for the situation of the Polisario Front fighting the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara (Macˇák 2018).

  6. 6.

    On agent-relativity here, see Parry (2017, p. 359); Quong (2009).

  7. 7.

    Killing an agent who poses a lethal threat as the necessary way of eliminating that threat is eliminative. It leaves the killer (or those she is protecting) no better off than had her target never existed. As Lazar puts it, the target is “not a resource” for the killer, but the very “problem that [is] solve[d]” by the killing (Lazar 2015, p. 60). In contrast, opportunistic forms of killing involve using the target as a resource to achieve the killer’s end. Within the latter category, “merely opportunistic” killing targets persons who are in some way responsible (upstream) for the threat the killer now faces, and who may, for that reason, be thought to have forfeited, at least partly, their claim not to be targeted so as to quell that threat (Frowe 2014, p. 179). This may be distinguished from the “exploitative” killing of those who are not responsible at all for the threat, and who cannot be said to have forfeited their right not to be targeted, but who the killer uses as a resource in resisting the threat.

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Dannenbaum, T. (2019). War Crimes and Just War Theory. In: Alexander, L., Ferzan, K. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Applied Ethics and the Criminal Law. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-22811-8_33

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