Rethinking Laws Governing Modern Warfare

Modern warfare and terrorist acts often sees the killing of innocent civilians which presents complex challenges for the international legal framework governing the conduct of armed conflicts. Armed conflict was once mostly confined to warring nations, but increasingly it involves clashes between states and insurgent groups such as terrorists and militants.

The result is that innocent civilians are more likely than ever to be caught up in violence and become victims of modern war technology such as drone attacks. There is therefore an urgent need to upgrade the laws and conventions governing warfare, according to a University of Huddersfield lecturer whose researches have earned an award at an international conference.

Dr George Ndi argues that warfare has an “increasingly asymmetric” character and it presents complex challenges for the international legal framework governing the conduct of armed conflicts.  His research, mainly based on the experience of Afghanistan and Somalia, was the basis for his paper at the 2017 Law, Regulations and Public Policy conference in Singapore. Delegates voted it the Best Research Paper from the 50-plus that were presented at the multi-national event.

“There is customary international law in terms of how wars have always been fought and more recently there have been international conventions, most notably the Geneva Conventions. But my concern is that civilians have been increasingly drawn into the conflict between states and non-state parties such as terror groups. This means that the laws of war break down in the new type of asymmetric warfare,” said Dr Ndi, who is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield’s Law School.

“Civilians get caught in two ways,” he continued.  “They are being attacked by the non-state party and when governments reacts, regular armed forces don’t know who their opponents are. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms. So they rely on profiling – and civilians get caught up.”

One of Dr Ndi’s main concerns is a lack of a convention that deals with drones.

“The law is always trying to catch up with technology,” he said. “The main problems with drones are that to use them you trespass in the air space of another country, which is a breach of international law; and if you are operating from a ceiling of 5,000-10,000 feet, how can you be certain that the person you are attacking is a civilian or a combatant?”

Dr Ndi calls for an international convention to draw up rules over the deployment of drones. Another strand in his paper – which he will develop for publication in international journals – deals with the legal implications of the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.

If, in principle, you are saying that the death of a civilian is potentially a war crime, then how can you use WMDs and not commit such a crime?  WMDs are by their nature indiscriminate. They don’t just kill combatants. They are bound to kill civilians,” said Dr Ndi.

“So my argument – which hasn’t been made before – is that by acquiring WMDs you are preparing to commit a war crime.”

Source: University of Huddersfield

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